SALT LAKE CITY — For all the talk about the new and improved Utah Jazz, this year, it still seems to come down to the same old rules of engagement.
Two games into the season, here are Jerry Sloan's marching orders for the new guys and long-timers alike: Play like your pants are on fire.
All game long.
"We won one of the last eight quarters we've played," said coach Jerry Sloan.
The Jazz took Step 2 in an 82-step plan to reinvent themselves Thursday with a home-opening 110-94 loss to Phoenix. Yup, same folks who took down the Jazz at the end of the regular season last year. That game launched the Jazz into the playoffs as a five seed, rather than a two or three, thanks to 19 turnovers. By Wednesday's season-opener at Denver, the Jazz hadn't learned a thing, producing 22 turnovers and thoughtfully spreading them among old-timers (12) and newcomers (10).
But the thing about the NBA is there's always another chance for redemption. Thus, Thursday, the Jazz returned for their home opener. Though they did play harder and cut down on turnovers (16), the end result wasn't far off their first night.
Two games, two whippings.
"I didn't know if we'd fight back or not, but I thought we fought back in the third quarter," Sloan continued.
If not panic time, it's at least time to take stock. The season is two games old and the Jazz aren't shooting well, aren't getting many easy shots and aren't getting back on defense. Most of all, they're starting off like a 25-year-old lawn mower.
Thursday, the Jazz shot just under 40 percent for most of the game and got burned by Phoenix reserve Hakeem Warrick (18 points). Though they pulled from an 18-point deficit to within six, you could sum it up at the close of the half when the Jazz relinquished a 3-point shot to Jason Richardson. Soon after, Al Jefferson tossed an air ball and the Jazz were late getting back. A slam-dunk for Richardson to give the Suns a 58-42 halftime lead.
News flash to the Jazz: Having a great season isn't like ordering takeout.
Although there are still 80 games left, Thursday's loss produced this sobering news: Only six times since moving to Utah in 1979 have the Jazz lost their first two, and only once (1983-84) did they go on to win their division.
All others they finished fourth or lower.
In other words, a slow start usually means a slow season.
If expectations were a bit lofty for a team that has yet to work out the kinks, the Jazz came back to reality on opening night in Denver. They trailed by as many as 27 points in that game. That's not a loss, it's a meltdown. Al Jefferson, he of the big smile and silver tongue, went 2-6 shooting with a minus-17 plus/minus score. Thursday he was better but still went just 5-14 from the field and 4-7 from the line.
While it's true the Nuggets on Wednesday probably remembered being eliminated in the playoffs by Utah last year, that couldn't have been all of it. How long can you stay mad at a team that gave you an extra two weeks of summer vacation? Thursday's game against Phoenix had a history, too. The Jazz and Suns met in Salt Lake for last year's regular season finale, with the Suns winning big then, too.
Amid all the optimism surrounding the new-look Jazz, reality is they have some things to work out. For instance, timing. In neither of the first two games did the Jazz effectively run their offense. (Deron Williams was 3-12 shooting with just six assists, Thursday). They threw passes to phantom teammates and too often settled for lower percentage jumpers. Meanwhile, they couldn't consistently stop their opponents from going inside.
Clearly, there are a few issues to clean up. Not insurmountable ones, but still, another season is up and running. Time to go to work. It's simple enough, but something they haven't yet done: Keep pawing and grabbing, driving and screening, from the first tip right down to the last exhausting minute. All game and all season long.
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