If the Jazz's penchant for playing up, or down, to the competition continues, it will be a precarious final 11 days of the season. There are three games left against good teams (L.A., twice and Golden State), three against bad teams (Dallas, Denver, Sacramento) and one against a team somewhere in the middle (Seattle).
Which means the Jazz will probably play three fine games, three bad ones and one somewhere in the middle.The second-place Jazz continue their April schedule with a Wednesday contest in the Salt Palace against the lowly Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks, bogged down this year by injuries, are 26-49. Only last Friday the Jazz were in Dallas, handing the Mavs a 93-87 loss.
Although the Jazz broke out of their pattern - playing equal to the competition - somewhat on Monday by dealing Orlando a 111-95 defeat, the game was closer than the final score. The Magic trailed by only three points late in the third period. "We had stretches where we did well, but it's still going on," said Sloan.
He continued, "You're always concerned because those games are the ones that slip away; guys just jackpot around at the time. They just kind of hang out."
There are numerous examples. The Jazz beat the Los Angeles Lakers 101-79, yet lost 102-99 to Orlando early in the season. They beat Portland 105-91, yet dropped a 120-155 verdict to Denver. They mashed San Antonio 104-81, yet lost to Minnesota, 94-93.
The Jazz's get-serious-when-you-need-to mode doesn't sit well with Sloan, who built a reputation on being tough every night. "There's a certain amount of truth to the fact that they're veterans and guys will say, `Well, let's just step it up a notch.' If they were always playing at the level they should, maybe they wouldn't have to step it up a notch."
Many of the Jazz's problems have been due to their inability to stop opponents from getting offensive rebounds. Orlando got 12 offensive boards on the Jazz and scored a 22 second-chance points. On Saturday, Houston took down 19 offensive rebounds. Similarly, the Jazz aren't known as a good offensive-rebounding team themselves.
Overall, the Jazz are being slightly out-rebounded by their opponents on the year.
"This team has always had a history of not being able to get offensive rebounds very well," continued Sloan. "It's got to be a team effort. One guy can benefit if the others will block off boards. But I'm reluctant to run `hamburger' drills - that's how you get hurt at this stage of the season - just to make them to get better now."
Another area Sloan has openly been concerned about is bench help. Last week against Houston and Dallas the Jazz got only 15 bench points each night. But Sloan says it's not so much the number of points as the way they play that's important - and for the most part, it hasn't been great lately.
Prominent in his absence has been guard Darrell Griffith, who has slowly been seeing less and less playing time. The Jazz's all-time leader in games played recorded his first career DNP-CD (did not play, coach's decision) March 4 at Orlando. He has not appeared in the last three Jazz games.
Sloan said Griffith's lack of playing time doesn't mean it will necessarily continue. "It depends on how they're playing and what the circumstances are," he said. "I'm looking for someone step up and compete like heck for us."
Concerning Griffith, he continued, "I just haven't felt circumstances were right. I haven't talked to him about it. But he's been able to adjust to about any situation in his career.
"I've had to look at the cumulative things about what players have done this year. Coaches have to go over those things every day. Decisions are based on those overall things. Then we give them the opportunity to play themselves in or out of a situation."
Meanwhile, Sloan said the Jazz must play through whatever fatigue they are experiencing at the season's end. "Some teams are able to win games even though they aren't playing especially well," he said. "Otherwise, the dog will jump up and bite you on the rear."