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Smooth Jazz

Make way for Utah among Western Conference elite

Posted: Thursday December 21, 2006 11:27AM; Updated: Thursday December 21, 2006 6:39PM
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Finally healthy, Carlos Boozer is averaging career highs in points, rebounds and field goal percentage.
Finally healthy, Carlos Boozer is averaging career highs in points, rebounds and field goal percentage.
John W. McDonough/SI
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Mike D'Antoni won't set out the fine china. Avery Johnson won't cook up a large pot of Texas-style chili. And Gregg Popovich won't pour a rare Cabernet from his wine cellar. But no matter how unwelcome the West's elite try to make them, the Utah Jazz have undeniably returned to contend for the conference crown.

Through Wednesday, Utah had roared to a 19-7 start and a 3˝-game lead in the Northwest Division. Along the way, they've dispatched the Rockets, Suns (twice), Spurs, Mavs and Clippers, serving notice that the Jazz will have a major say in the playoffs for the first time since Karl Malone left to chase rings in L.A. and John Stockton retired.

"They're deep, they're talented, they defend, they do everything the right way," summarizes an opposing scout.

Most important, the Jazz are healthy. Last season saw Carlos Boozer on the bench for all but 33 games with a strained hamstring after missing the final 31 games of the 2004-05 campaign with a strained right foot. Andrei Kirilenko has missed 54 games over the past two seasons with of aches and pains and breaks. Gordan Giricek missed 45 games last season alone with everything from a strained Achilles to tonsillitis.

"Over the last two seasons, it seemed that after three or four games, we had three or four guys out for long periods of time," Kirilenko said from his seat in the Jazz locker room Monday night at Madison Square Garden. "It's so hard to recover after losing so many guys."

Though Kirilenko already missed five games earlier this season, the Jazz -- and in particular, Boozer -- have been generally injury-free this fall. And after two seasons of dodging criticism from the media for his controversial exit from Cleveland and from Jazz owner Larry Miller, Boozer is finally playing up to the six-year, $70 million deal Utah handed him in the summer of '04, averaging 21.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and shooting 55.4 percent -- all career highs -- while starting every game.

"The [Jazz] want to establish him early and often," observes an Eastern Conference scout. "Not only does the team find ways to get him involved in the offense, but he also finds ways [to get the ball] by cutting or setting good screens or sealing his guy well. He can shoot pretty well to 15 or 17 feet, he's creative inside on the block and runs the floor and crashes the glass."

The Jazz have followed that formula as a whole in outrebounding opponents by an average of seven per game and scoring 102.8 points a night, an offensive tally they haven't produced since 1996-97. Call it catching up to the times for a franchise long tutored in the physical brand of defense coach Jerry Sloan brought to Utah from his days harassing backcourt players as a Chicago Bull. Better, call it Deron Williams.

Now in his second season, Williams is playing like a man determined to justify being selected one spot ahead of Chris Paul in the 2005 draft. After shuttling in and out of the Jazz's starting lineup last season while coming to grips with the demands of playing point for the demanding Sloan, Williams used the summer to trim down and pick the brain of Utah's last star point guard, Stockton, while spending a few days with the future Hall of Famer.

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