Utah Jazz: Utah Jazz: A step forward? There's still lots of room for improvement

Published: Sunday, May 18 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

Carlos Boozer talks to the media while cleaning out his locker at the EnergySolutions Arena on Saturday — the day after the Jazz were eliminated from the playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News) Carlos Boozer talks to the media while cleaning out his locker at the EnergySolutions Arena on Saturday — the day after the Jazz were eliminated from the playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)
As general manager Kevin O'Connor does the math, the Jazz are even.
Sixty victories in the 2006-07 season — 51 in the regular season, nine in the playoffs. Sixty in the just-concluded 2007-08 season — 54 in the regular season, six in the playoffs.
No better, but no worse.
Not everyone, however, sees it that way.
The morning after his Jazz were eliminated from the 2008 NBA playoffs with a 4-2 Western Conference semifinals series loss to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, coach Jerry Sloan — of all people — crunches the numbers and feels pretty positive about the baby-step progress they represent.
"We won, what, 54 games? That's an improvement over where we were a year ago," said Sloan, whose club made it to the '07 Western Conference finals. "Obviously we didn't get through the second level of the playoffs, but ... it could have gone either way.
"So I think they made tremendous strides," Sloan added as his still-maturing crew cleaned lockers Saturday morning. "They're young, and that's important. That's the exciting thing about it."
Point guard Deron Williams looks at the numbers but sees things adding up differently.
"We won more games during the regular season," Williams said, "but, at the same time, we exited earlier. It was frustrating.
"We felt we had a great team," he added the day after his third NBA season concluded. "We had a championship-caliber team. It just didn't really come together for us in the playoffs like we'd like to."
Slow starts, especially against the Lakers. Scoring issues for All-Star Carlos Boozer, both in the semifinal against L.A. and in opening-round play against Houston. A decided lack of defense, especially in Friday's 108-105 Game 6 loss.
So much did go so wrong for the Jazz.
Sloan, for all of his uncharacteristic enthusiasm, acknowledges as much.
"Obviously, (Friday) night left a bitter taste in my mouth, the way we started off the ball game," he said after having endured watching the Lakers build a 19-point halftime lead. "But there were some positives from it. We did fight back.
"I thought they did a terrific job," Sloan added, "if you look at the overall picture, not look at (just Friday)."
Yet there is, he readily admits, much room for improvement.
"Obviously we've got to be a better defensive team," Sloan said. "We've got to be a team that can stand up — when things get a little tough, continue to fight through that. I thought (Friday) night, in the second half, we had that.
"A never-say-die attitude is always going to give you a chance to win," he added. "As bad as things looked (Friday), I kept thinking thinking, 'We're going to win this game, some way.' And, as it turned out, with one shot we could tie it up and maybe go to overtime and win."
Instead Mehmet Okur and Williams both missed trey tries in the waning seconds — and the Jazz were left to ponder what was, and what could have been.
Williams believes the best team ultimately outlasted the Jazz.
"I don't think you can call it any other way," he said.
"They were tougher than us mentally," Williams added. "They played better than us. They came in here and beat us on our homecourt, something we couldn't do to them."
However, that wasn't a universal feeling as keepsakes were boxed and old shoes discarded.
"This room is filled with talent. But we're young," veteran forward Matt Harpring said. "We're getting better. And, from the bottom of my heart, I think we're a better team than the Lakers are. They beat us, but I think we can beat any team in this league. And we did (in the regular season).
"I hope people realize how close we were," Harpring added. "I mean, Game 5 — if we could have got that game, I think it changes the whole series around. And we were right there. I just think if we keep playing hard, we keep working, this team grows together — yeah, we're going to be there."
Harpring, in fact, ends his sixth season in Utah feeling pretty positive.
"Step forward," he said. "I think the West was generally better this year, so there's a lot more competition out there."
For the Jazz to get to the next level, Harpring added, they need "consistent play, especially in the playoffs. Everyone's got to contribute and play well."
Boozer's scoring — down five-plus points from the regular season, from 21.1 to 16.0 — may be what the Jazz lacked most.
He didn't deny that Saturday, saying, "I don't think I had the playoff series that I wanted to have in either series."
If the Jazz are to move forward, Harpring suggested, adversity akin to that must be overcome.
"It's (about) being mentally tough to go out there and score," Harpring said. "You know, you might not be hitting every shot. But you've got to be mentally tough to take that next shot and not get the ball and not shoot it.
"That's a point where you've got to get to in the playoffs, because playoffs are tough to score. They scout you, they take away things, and they're going to make you do things you don't want to do. But if you start 1-for-4 and you hesitate on that next shot, you're just hurting your team. Because we expect you to make that shot and take that shot.
"I think that is the mental part that we're going to get to — trust in your ability, trust in your confidence, trust in your offense, and play it out."
Ronnie Brewer's development. Andrei Kirilenko's improvement. Williams' tremendous growth.
For all that did go wrong, much about the season left the Jazz feeling all right.
"We have the makeup of a helluva team, a team that can win a championship and get to the Finals one day," Boozer said.
"You know, we have everything. It's just, like, a matter of 'keep our game.' Sometimes we kind of can't stick with the plan," Kirilenko added. "I think if we just play our game we can beat anybody and we can win the title. But it's only words right now."
Yet words to live by.
"This basketball team here has a good future, if they work at it and put their heart into it," Sloan said. "And we've done a lot of that. But it's, 'What did you do for me today?'
"Hopefully," he added, "we keep all these guys together and try it again."
There is, after all, more progress to be made, more games to be won.
"You'd like to take that giant step, but this is who we are," Sloan said. "You kind of have to do it in stages, and sometimes there's a lot of bitter with the sweet. We've got to try to keep working to keep that bitter taste out of our mouth."

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com

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