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Mettle men

Inexperienced Jazz mastering pressure of postseason

Posted: Monday May 14, 2007 1:23AM; Updated: Monday May 14, 2007 9:27AM
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• Jazz conquer Warriors, take 3-1 series lead

Pointing to a team's mettle, its ability to rise above pressure and execute with everything seeming ready to fall apart, seems like a cop-out. Most of the time, it's a fanciful notion used to hide an observer's inability or unwillingness to point out the real reasons (rebounds, free throws, turnovers) one team won and one team lost.

But there are times, especially in the case of this season's Utah Jazz, where the concept gets beat over our head, time and time again, until it hits. This Jazz team is made of strong stuff.

The squad is littered with contributors who have either played deep into the NCAA tournament or international get-togethers, but this is also a team that is playing its first season of postseason basketball together, full of playoff neophytes who (even in their 11th game of the postseason) shouldn't be playing this well.

Yes, Derek Fisher's experience goes a long (long, long) way and Andrei Kirilenko got a taste of the big time hanging around for the tail end of the Karl Malone/John Stockton era, but this team is still reliant on Carlos Boozer's ability to square himself for tough (and replete with touch) finishes and Deron Williams to run the show. That's asking a lot from a still-young big man and a point guard in his second year. And yet, Sunday night, on the road in the nastiest of all the remaining NBA environs, they pulled it off.

Boozer was as dominant as one can be, considering that it felt as if he touched the ball for about 142 combined seconds all evening. Allowed to play 43 minutes in the Game 4 win (my constant frustration with Boozer all season was Jerry Sloan's refusal to set him free for the occasional 40-minute night), he scored 34 points on just 19 shots, with 12 rebounds and just three turnovers. There simply does not appear to be a place within 16 feet of the hoop where Boozer cannot throw up a high-percentage shot. His ability to go over either shoulder, score with either hand or turn in hooks from any spot (turning three-quarters toward the hoop, or completely facing it) -- I just don't know how you guard the guy. Your only hope, it would appear, would be relying on Boozer to disappear for a long stretch of court time, as he did during the second quarter of Game 3. That's not much to bank on. Otherwise, he's scoring on defenders both big (Yao Ming, Andris Biedrins) and small (Chuck Hayes, Al Harrington).

Williams didn't shoot as well, missing 12 of 18 shots, but he was taking the tough shots down the stretch as Utah pulled away. Fisher was brilliant, no way around it -- he went 40 minutes without turning the ball over, and scored 21 points on just 11 shots. Paul Millsap, as we've grown accustomed to, offered eight points and six rebounds in only 19 minutes. Mehmet Okur took four shots, and scored 14. Extremely efficient, against a team that hasn't lost on its home court since March 26. Very impressive.

Golden State lost because it didn't hit the sorts of shots the team is used to making, managing just 30.8 percent from long range and missing 13 free throws. At home, it was a bit of a shock, and it appeared to get to Don Nelson's club. The bombs would rim out, and Boozer would nail a short hook on the other end that seemed too effortless to be true.

Golden State still caused turnovers, but not to a point where the Jazz seemed out of control of the contest. Utah didn't discover a better way to hang onto the ball in Game 5; the team's 20 turnovers were a better mark than the 24 cough-ups from Game 4, but Golden State's inability to turn this into a huge advantage may have cost the Warriors a series tie. Golden State turned it over 15 times on its own, making the disparity a bit of a wash once the free throws and poor three-point shooting factored in.

Another point needs to be made regarding Golden State's inability to keep the team's frustrations under wraps.

Listen, Warriors -- America wants to make you its team, its plucky underdog worth watching after midnight on the East Coast. Don't keep ruining this goodwill with the sort of chippiness and petulance we've seen following the losses to Dallas in the first round and the home loss Sunday.

If Fisher is needlessly clinging to you in the backcourt, Baron Davis, find a way to remove yourself without putting an elbow in his chin. If Okur wants to look like a punk and try to dunk the ball in the waning seconds of a near-blowout, Jason Richardson, it doesn't do anything to threaten your manhood or dignity if he's able to throw it down unchallenged. It just makes Okur look silly. Little else.

There's no reason to take these sorts of minimal slights as an affront to your sensibilities. Let it go, and get ready for Game 5. You better, because there's no question that the Jazz will be.