AUBURN HILLS, Mich. A built-in excuse gave Jerry Sloan sufficient cause not to celebrate Sunday's visit here.
But the Jazz also shed one reason for their own compromised play of late, allowing Sloan's players to savor a 103-93 victory over the Detroit Pistons even if their coach was not particularly impressed with the start to a three-game road trip.
Sloan's justification for refusing to smile, even after Utah won for a third straight time and improved to 10-4 while handing the 8-5 Pistons their first home loss this season: Detroit was without veteran big man Rasheed Wallace, as the Pistons' 15.2 points-per-game scorer and 7.2 boards-per-game rebounder strolled the sideline with a sore left knee.
"We beat a team without their best player," Sloan said after the Jazz, who visit New York tonight, defeated the Pistons for a fifth straight time. "I don't know how you jump up and down too much, because obviously everybody knows how important he is to their team."
Equally important to the Jazz, however, is a point guard who for the first time in a long time was playing relatively pain-free.
Deron Williams' sore big toe was little bother, and that played as much a part in Utah's success as not only Wallace's absence but even the stellar showing of power forward Carlos Boozer.
Boozer finished with a season-high 36 points on 17-of-20 shooting from the field, and pulled down a team-high 11 rebounds for his 11th double-double in 14 games this season.
His scoring total was largely aided by the play of Williams, who scored 21 points and dished a season-high 14 assists while recording his fifth double-double of the season.
"It was great, because it was like the first game in about two or three weeks where his toe wasn't hurting as much," Boozer said of Williams, who had an ingrown nail on the right-foot toe surgically repaired last Tuesday.
"You can see how much quicker he was, how much crisper his passes were," Boozer added. "He just seemed like a different player out there (compared to) the last five or six games."
Williams did not deny that it made a huge difference.
"My toe felt a lot better the best it's felt in a couple weeks," he said. "That had a little bit to do with it. A lot, really, because I could actually push off of it."
Williams seemed to be able to the push the game's pace at will, and that helped shove Utah to a 10-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
What also thrust the Jazz forward, however, was a Pistons meltdown late in the third.
Utah was holding a tenuous four-point lead with 2 1/2 minutes to go in the period when Boozer barreled into the lane, only to have Detroit's Tayshaun Prince whack him on the arm as the Jazz power forward headed toward what was bound to be either pick your preference a basket or a charge into Pistons big man Jason Maxiell.
Detroit coach Flip Saunders chose the latter, opted for choice words directed at referee Marc Davis when the call instead went against Prince and wound up getting tossed with back-to-back technical fouls.
Jazz shooting guard Ronnie Brewer hit two resulting free throws, Boozer did the same and two-plus minutes later after Brewer made a free throw stemming from a subsequent technical on, get this, Pistons trainer Mike Abdenour Utah's lead was headed toward double-digits.
"That helped us a lot," Boozer said. "I mean, that hurt them a little bit because Ronnie made every free throw."
Detroit did get back to within as close as four points when Prince knocked down a 3-pointer with 4:08 remaining.
But, after an exchange of missed jumpers, Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko tipped in the miss of a failed Williams trey try with 3:13 to go and the Pistons never really threatened again.
Before it was done, Boozer would deliver a putback to give Utah its biggest lead of the game at 12, and Williams would feed ex-Pistons center Mehmet Okur for a game-closing 3-pointer polishing off what both Boozer and Williams agreed had to be their best combined game this season.
"I know (Boozer's) confidence was high," Williams said. "I've been struggling lately, so for us to play good on the same (day) definitely is a treat."
Boozer readily concurred.
"Yeah," he said when asked if it indeed was their best 1-2 punch in 14 games.
"But it's early. There's gonna be more of that," Boozer added. "There's gonna be a lot more of that, because when he's playing at full strength and I'm playing at full strength we've got a good combination. When we play like (that), we're pretty tough to beat."They are, no matter Jazz players might have wanted to say, but did not who is, or is not, on the floor.