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Utah Jazz need Harpring's attitude as tough-man

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 12:46 p.m. MDT

Sure, the Jazz could use some extra-burly, super-tall help when they meet the Los Angeles Lakers in Sunday's playoff opener. It wouldn't hurt to have their own Kobe Bryant, either.

But they'll settle for some toughness.

Which made it ironic that earlier this week, the roughest player on the Jazz roster was nursing a sinus infection and talking about getting healthy. A sinus infection? What's he going to worry about next, a pimple?

Just kidding. Matt Harpring was on the exercise bike, gearing up for Sunday's game with the Lakers. He didn't feel great, but this was no time for lying in bed. Yes, he said, he did have a headache.

"My nose has all that infection in there, but the antibiotics have helped the last few days," said Harpring. "It's clearing up a little bit. The doctor said 48 hours. By tonight, I'm hoping, I'll feel much better."

Then he could get back to the business of grinding, drilling and blasting.

The business of making the other guys hate his guts.

Harpring may not be the main key to the Jazz winning this series, but he should be a factor. For a team with a reputation of toughness, the Jazz have been conspicuously mild this season. Opponents have repeatedly driven unmolested to the basket. Deron Williams and Paul Millsap are tough, because both can get hurtled into the stanchion, yet bounce right back. But Harpring is the one who drives other teams to distraction. It's he who locks arms and legs, crashes through screens, takes charges and generally annoys everyone in the building.

He who turns the court into a big game of "Twister."

Remember the rec ball guy who was always in your face, frothing and working too hard, not playing cool at all?

That's Harpring.

"I want to be that guy you hate playing against," said Harpring. "I know who I hate playing against, and you learn from that and say 'I want to play that way against someone else, because there's no way they're going to like that, either.' "

Harpring is a decent mid-range shooter and rebounder. He can play three positions. But injuries have taken a toll. This year he has been inactive 10 times, mostly involving his back and ankle. Last season he missed three games due to "gastric distress" — brought on by someone's elbow? — another with knee inflammation.

On the other hand, he has been in games when he probably should have been in a hospital.

When the Jazz acquired him in 2002, it was obvious what Jerry Sloan wanted. The Jazz coach liked the way Harpring got his chin in the other guys' faces. It reminded him of his own stubborn self.

Starter or reserve, Harpring approaches every game with the same ornery attitude.

If the Celtics' Paul Pierce is threatening to shoot them out of the gym, it's Harpring who gets the call. Harpring, too, was the only player to even remotely bother LeBron James when the Cavs came calling this year. At times, he had James talking to the refs and himself.

It was also Harpring who incited Atlanta's Josh Smith into hammering him on a drive and getting ejected.

"Every time I get knocked down like that, a voice goes off in my head, 'Get up.' It just goes back to what my dad said in football — never act like you are hurt," he said afterward.

"Matt Harpring, I can't say enough about him," Sloan said this year, after he held Pierce to 2-of-9 shooting in the fourth quarter.

Not surprisingly, you don't often see Harpring small-talking with the enemy.

It's hard to get chummy when you're as annoying as an itch.

"I mean, that's a talent in itself," said Harpring. "Everyone says, 'How high can you jump? How fast is he?' when they scout someone, but it's as important as anything, I think, to have someone who's tough."

As a rookie in Orlando, Harpring played under coach Chuck Daly, the creator of the infamous Detroit "Bad Boys."

"I was always told as a rookie by Chuck Daly that toughness and playing hard are hidden talents and no one really talks about it, but it's as high as anything," said Harpring.

So with a Jazz team that has repeatedly been called soft defensively, look for Harpring to make his black-and-blue mark in the playoffs. He'll be the one skidding across the floor on his seat, cascading into the stands, or stopping a layup with a semi-tackle. The guy the L.A. crowd hates most.

He'll also be the guy Sloan takes out to lunch.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com

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