SALT LAKE CITY — Used to be that when the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers showed up, the Jazz were in serious trouble.
Nowadays, they're so over that.
Thanks to Mo Williams' buzzer-beating 3-pointer Wednesday, the Jazz moved to 3-1 against the most successful teams in the West.
Gee, how long since that happened?
Seems like just yesterday they were getting waxed by the Spurs and Lakers. But 23 games into the season, the Jazz are acting like a team to take seriously. They have won four consecutive games, including back-to-back against the Lakers and Spurs.
In another life, with another team, the Jazz used to do these things routinely. The Jazz treated them like table scraps. David Robinson got the dry heaves whenever Karl Malone came around. Kobe Bryant was just a cocky kid.
In 1994, for example, the Jazz lost their playoff opener at San Antonio but swept the final three in the best-of-five series. The outcome was shockingly easy.
"I hate when that happens," Jazz center Felton Spencer joked.
Two years later, the Jazz walked off the court with a 4-2 series win over the Spurs, prompting San Antonio fans to shout, "Get a point guard!" after seeing John Stockton dice their team.
So they did, eventually acquiring Tony Parker.
The Jazz also beat San Antonio 4-1 in the 1998 conference semifinals.
Meanwhile, Utah beat the Lakers eight times in nine games in the 1997 and 1998 playoffs.
In 1996-97 and '97-98, the Jazz beat San Antonio six of eight times in the regular season. They also went 3-1 against the Lakers in 1996-97.
In other words, Los Angeles and San Antonio were just a couple of towns, their teams just a couple of teams. Things change. Since 1999 the Lakers and Spurs have won nine titles between them.
They Jazz have won just 12 of their last 47 games with San Antonio during the regular season, eight of 22 against the Lakers.
But weird things sometimes happen in the NBA. The Jazz were supposed to be a low-level playoff team at best this year, but so far they're moving up the charts. Meanwhile, the Lakers were supposed to be a shoo-in for the division title, following the acquisition of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. But Nash went down with an injury and they fired their coach. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol have been sniping and the whole town has gone dysfunctional.
Los Angeles? Dysfunctional?
Then there are the Spurs. They were supposed to get old but still haven't. With the addition of plenty of young talent, they have managed to keep Tim Duncan's 92-year-old heart nicely beating. He logged 22 points, same as Parker in Wednesday's 99-96 loss. Going into the game, they had the best record in the NBA.
"They play well at home and on the road, it doesn't really matter where they are playing," Jazz coach Ty Corbin said.
It's hard not to admire the Spurs becoming a dominant force, despite being in a small market. At the same time, there's coach Gregg Popovich, the crankiest, edgiest coach in the league. He proved that once again this year when he sent Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green home to rest instead of playing them against Miami.
That drew a fine from the league, which had the ridiculous idea that somehow the fans deserve better.
Excused absences were no issue on Wednesday. The only missing Spurs were injured Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard.
While Spurs' stars are aging, it isn't like the franchise has failed to adapt. Its new motto: It takes a village. A very big one, in fact. The Spurs now represent more nations than NATO. Whatever the country, someone on the team is a hometown hero. Let's see, there's the Virgin Islands (Duncan), France (Parker, Nando De Colo, Boris Diaw), Argentina (Ginobili), Brazil (Tiago Splitter) and Australia (Patty Mills).
This just in: The Spurs are hoping to round things out by finding a small forward from Greenland.
As for the Jazz, they're just a bunch of guys from the neighborhood.
Still, it would be hard to find a better time for the Jazz to come strong, considering their schedule. December's slate includes such dangerous opponents as Miami, Memphis, Golden State (yes, Golden State) and the Clippers. The Jazz opened a nine-point lead at the close of the first half on Wednesday, thanks largely to some well-timed 3-pointers, then closed the game out with Williams' basket.
Thus they moved ahead.
Curiously, it seemed as they did so, they were also looking back.
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