SALT LAKE CITY — Oklahoma City isn't the only challenge facing Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin as the team returns home for an important game at EnergySolutions Arena.
Starting center Al Jefferson will be back with the Jazz for their big test tonight against the Thunder after missing the past two games to attend his grandmother's funeral.
It's possible injured regulars Raja Bell and Earl Watson could be available for action as well.
The Jazz are thrilled to have their veterans back, but ...
Considering how well Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks and Jamaal Tinsley played in their absence, this creates a playing-time quandary for the second-year coach.
It's a situation, however, that Corbin admits he'd prefer to have.
Not having his three vets, the coach explained, left the Jazz's arsenal short of its full firepower. That outweighs the benefit of not having to make tough choices on who plays and who sits, which wasn't as difficult without three players at his disposal.
"We need all of our weapons. ... We need everybody to be available for us to have a chance," Corbin said. "Also, it gives me more choices looking down there."
In other words, he'd rather his roster resemble a buffet line with lots of choices than a menu that's limited in its options, even if they're good options.
"We felt great about all 14 guys," Corbin said. "They've done a tremendous job of just being ready to play the minutes that they get, and we expect that to continue."
An interesting thing has happened as this season has progressed. The theory used to be that the Jazz basically had two options:
1) They need to play veterans to have the best chance to win now, which is important because a playoff-chasing characteristic is ingrained into the organization's fabric;
2) They need to throw occasional minutes — "meaningful minutes," as Corbin would call it — to the young guys to help them develop.
Two-thirds of the way through the 2011-12 campaign, it's become evident that winning and developing aren't mutually exclusive.
The young guys — including Gordon Hayward, of course — are talented enough, confident enough and poised enough to help contribute to victories.
The Jazz's three-game winning streak offers multiple examples of just that:
Hayward, who turns 22 Friday, led the team with 26 points, including 18 from the fourth quarter on, in Utah's overtime victory against Minnesota on Thursday.
The 20-year-old Favors carried the Jazz to a fun overtime win over Golden State on Saturday with career-highs of 23 points and 17 rebounds. He also had a double-double in L.A. and 16 boards vs. Minnesota.
Rookies Enes Kanter, 19, and Alec Burks, 20, played huge roles in Utah's biggest road win of the season during Sunday's exciting 103-99 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Hayward and Favors have seen the most action of the young guys, but some would argue they need even bigger roles.
Burks has averaged about 14 points in the Jazz's three straight wins after not even being put in for two straight games, so he can't be relegated back to that all-pine-no-time role, can he?
Kanter, meanwhile, just had back-to-back career-highs of rebounds (13) and points (17), so you have to wonder if Corbin will find ways to increase his chances.
But at whose expense?
It should be noted, of course, that multiple veterans played key roles in those wins, too — from C.J. Miles' tough defense on 3-for-20 Kobe Bryant, to Paul Millsap's 24 points at Staples Center, to Tinsley's playmaking, to Devin Harris' scoring and assists, and some offensive production from Josh Howard.
Jefferson comes back as the Jazz's most consistent player, leading scorer and top rebounder this season, and Watson has provided an emotional lift and playmaking spark to the second unit. Bell has struggled with injuries and on offense of late, but his defensive efforts and occasional outside touch have helped Utah.
But the team's fresh faces have done enough to merit serious playing time consideration — now almost as much for the Jazz's chances to win as for their own development.
On top of that, Tinsley has done nothing but play well when he's gotten the opportunities in his NBA revival season.
Only Corbin knows how he'll divvy up those 240 minutes a night — oh, and good luck with that.
"You look at the entire picture and we've got to have everybody ready," Corbin said. "We've got to make sure the guys continue to take care of their body and support each other and try and win as many of these games as we can because it's huge for us."
Corbin would love to have as many healthy bodies as possible to finish off the final third of the season and make a playoff push now that the Jazz have gone above .500 again at 23-22 and played their way back into the mix.
The schedule isn't about to let up, either.
Tonight's home game against OKC is followed by a four-games-in-five-nights stint that begins Thursday at improved Sacramento. And consider this: Today is March 20, but the Jazz still have eight games to play in this calendar month. That includes five road games — from Boston to Los Angeles for the Clippers.
"We've been very fortunate most of the year that we've had everybody healthy pretty much," Corbin added. "It's a good group of guys. They work well together. They support each other. We're going to need everybody to have a chance to win."
To the four recent lottery picks' credit, that everybody includes them.
Now more than ever.
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