Matt Gade, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — It has been well-chronicled that, over the first couple months of the NBA regular season, the Utah Jazz played the toughest schedule in the entire league.
And it showed, too, as the youthful Jazz stumbled out of the starting gate, going 0-8 on their way to a dismal 1-14 record after their first 15 games.
Since then, though, the schedule has gradually started to let up, and Utah's record is certainly reflected in its results. Since that 1-14 start, the Jazz have played .500 basketball, going 11-11 entering Friday night's home game against Cleveland.
Rookie point guard Trey Burke, whose return from a preseason finger injury has been instrumental in Utah's resurgence, realizes the NBA's schedule-makers didn't do the Jazz any favors to start the season.
But he's glad to see that things have begun to swing in the other direction these days, with Utah playing eight of its 12 games this month at home and seven home games during a 10-game stretch in February.
"I think it's definitely in our advantage for this month, at least," Burke said. "We've got a lot of home games, so we're trying to take advantage of that. We understand that we're pretty good at home, especially with the crowd behind us, so we just need to come out with the same type of focus and the same type of intensity.
"You have to be ready every single night to compete, come out with a lot of intensity. We understand that we're at home and that the crowd's behind us, but we need to come out with the amount of energy that we're gonna need to win. If it was a close game in the fourth quarter, we need to come out with that energy at the beginning of the game. I think we'll be fine if we do that."
So, Burke was asked, what's been the difference when the Jazz play at EnergySolutions Arena?
"We come out with that energy and we throw the first punch," he said, "and I think that allows us to get into our groove quicker than laying back and then digging ourselves out of holes.
"That's tough to do in this league, so I think if we keep that mindset, then we'll be fine."
Utah had won four straight home games before Friday's game with the Cavs, and Burke said that the key lately has been that the Jazz are playing better team defense and are getting better execution on the offensive end of the floor.
"Guys aren't just focusing on their man when their man has the ball," he said, "and it's got a lot of us to play team defense, which allows us to get more stops. And when teams get stops, then you obviously get better chances at easy buckets."
GUARDING AGAINST INJURIES: Some high-profile point guards like Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, the L.A. Clippers' Chris Paul, Phoenix's Eric Bledsoe and New Orleans' Jrue Holiday have recently gone down with injuries. Boston's Rajon Rondo and Chicago's Derrick Rose both suffered severe knee injuries at the end of last season, and Rose injured his other knee earlier this season.
Burke was asked why so many of his contemporaries keep getting bit by the injury bug.
"It's really tough because you can't take any nights off," Burke said. "With the 82-game season and you have back-to-backs and you're on the road as much as we are, you've got to take care of your body.
"And sometimes even if you do take care of your body, you have those nagging injuries and sometimes those severe injuries. It's just the name of the game."
HAYWARD'S HOT HAND: Utah shooting guard Gordon Hayward, the team's leading scorer, said that in Tuesday's victory over Oklahoma City, the Jazz showed some signs of maturity they hadn't shown earlier in the season, as they withstood a Thunder-ous rally that trimmed Utah's 24-point lead to just five points in the fourth quarter.
"We got some timely stops, some timely scores, and I don't think earlier in the season we would've been able to do that," he said. "So we're growing as a team and it's good to see that we can withhold somebody's run and make one of our own."
Of course, it didn't hurt Utah's chances any that Hayward scored 25 of his career-high 37 points in the second half, including 17 in the fourth quarter alone — Utah's last 17 points of the game — in the eventual 112-101 victory.
"The team did a good job of getting me the ball and finding me in open positions, and we ran some more sets for me," Hayward said. "You've got to go with somebody who's hot. We've got a lot of guys with a lot of talent, so when somebody's hot, I think you continue to give them the basketball and see what they can do."
A FAMILIAR FACE: Former Jazz swingman C.J. Miles, who spent his first seven NBA seasons in a Utah uniform, poured in a season-high 34 points for the Cavaliers in a victory over Philadelphia on Tuesday, thanks to a franchise-record 10 3-pointers.
Miles, who's averaging 10.1 points per game this season for the Cavs, was 10 of 14 from 3-point range in that game and has scored a total of 74 points (24.7 ppg) in his last three games.
"He can get hot; he gets it going," Utah forward Marvin Williams said of Miles. "I kind of like his style because he's not afraid to shoot the next one.
"If he misses one or two, the next one's gonna go up so you can always appreciate playing with a player like that who's very confident in themselves and their shot. It shows, man, when he makes his first couple early, he can really get going."
BIG FOOTBALL FAN: Williams walked out of the Jazz locker room following Friday morning's shootaround carrying a Seattle Seahawks beanie in hand to pull over his head before leaving ESA.
The Bremerton, Wash., native admitted he's a huge football fan, and is especially one of the Seahawks, who host an NFC playoff game Saturday against the New Orleans Saints.
"I'm ready, man. I'm focused on tonight, but after tonight that's the only game I'm worried about is tomorrow afternoon," Williams said of the Seahawks-Saints matchup. "I love football. To be honest with you, football when I was growing up was my favorite sport. I just kinda grew a little tall and my dad didn't want me to play anymore.
"But I've always followed football very closely, I've always enjoyed watching it and I enjoy playing it. I love basketball, but football is definitely probably my favorite sport."
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