SALT LAKE CITY — The Jazz returned to EnergySolutions Arena on Monday for a 112-110 win — though we’re not talking about Tyrone Corbin’s team. There were other Jazz players, too, i.e. those with the navy-and-red uniforms and the chance to make the playoffs. The team that has an All-Star stretch forward, a lights-out 3-point shooter and an overachieving small forward.
If Monday night’s Atlanta win over Utah had an eerily familiar feel, there was good reason. Three Hawks’ starters were formerly players in Utah: Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll. All were fondly regarded by the Jazz, yet none fit into the team’s future.
Four years after the first of them left, all are enjoying their best seasons, or close to it. Meanwhile, the Jazz are coming off a miserable road trip. With 18 games left, they are 15 away from the last playoff spot. Atlanta, on the other hand, is holding down the eighth spot in the East, though that is faint praise.
If only the Jazz had known they had a playoff combination before they blew things up. Actually, they did. They just didn’t want to settle for eighth place every year, so they let all three go as free agents.
Yet all of them did what they’ve always done. Nobody ripped the city, coaches or management. No one aired the team’s dirty laundry. They all just acted like grownups, then followed the job trail.
“Kicking and screaming? No,” Millsap said. “I respected the situation. I respected what the Jazz were going and it was time to move along, situation as right for me, so I’m here.”
Millsap made the All-Star team for the first time this year, scoring six points in the midseason spectacle. He has taken and made roughly four times as many 3-point shots as any other season, thanks to his new role as a distance-shooting power forward. Korver is leading the league in 3-point shooting and his free throw percentage is even better than 2006-07, when he topped the NBA. Carroll is averaging twice as many minutes as in any other season and recording career bests in nearly every statistical category.
“They come in and compete, they’re very professional and they’re great people off the court,” said Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer. “I think the league is really valuing those kinds of players. They play hard, compete and represent the organization well.”
So it was no surprise that the crowd reacted warmly during team introductions. Millsap got his first big cheer with 3:50 left in warm-ups, as he appeared on the video screen. A few minutes later, announcer Dan Roberts presented the former Jazz players by saying, “Welcome back, No. 5, DeMarre Carroll!” etc. The cheers were shy of a roar, but more than a smattering.
The three ex-Utahns combined for 18 of Atlanta’s first 28 points and 12 of the final 16, with Korver finishing with 26, Millsap with 23 and Carroll with 11. If they were treated with too much respect, it’s only because they gave it. Millsap never stopped improving as a Jazz player, from footwork, to perimeter shooting, to defense. Korver was shaky defensively, but could pick off a fly from 100 yards. His .476 percentage from 3-point range is best in the NBA this year. And at 92 percent, his free-throw shooting is better than in 2006-07 when the led the league.
Carroll, whose health issues will likely require a liver replacement in 20 years, is anything but lily-livered in his game. You don’t get the nickname Junkyard Dog by treading lightly.
He has started 55 games, 4½ times his previous high.
In each case, they came and left Utah without a trace of drama. Millsap could have loudly complained about his diminishing importance after being the team’s most steady player. Korver could have smirked at Utah’s ongoing dearth of consistent 3-point shooting after he left. Carroll could have huffed about diving for loose balls and long rebounds, only to be passed by when free agency arrived.
The Jazz were in trouble by the time Korver, Millsap and Carroll had left the team. Something had to change. At the same time, each epitomized traits Jazz fans still can’t resist.
As fashion stylist Rachel Zoe said, “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.”
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