Health concerns still weigh on Jazz
The Jazz started the season off strong, reviving the faith in Utah fans
But after a string of injuries to key players, they fell to the No. 5 seed
They face the Nuggets in the first round with a few starters still not 100 percent
This is not where the Utah Jazz anticipated being.
They had a rock-solid regular season, keeping together the core of a team that, for months, was rumored to be on the precipice of being reshaped for financial and other less-tangible reasons.
They reclaimed the hearts of the faithful in Salt Lake City, who saw the Jazz self-destruct at the end of last season.
They regained their self-confidence, realizing the coalescence of point guard Deron Williams, power forward Carlos Boozer, small forward Andrei Kirilenko and center Mehmet Okur, combining with a fine mix of younger role players.
And then? They became the Portland Trail Blazers. An injury to Okur reduced their interior presence. An injury to Kirilenko reduced their defensive presence. And an injury to Boozer, in the penultimate game of the regular season no less, reduced any presence they had at all.
In their season finale at home on Wednesday, the Jazz laid a dinosaur-sized egg against Phoenix that reduced them to the fifth seed without home-court advantage in the playoffs. Instead of a first-round matchup against sixth-seeded Portland, who the Jazz defeated in all four games this season, they find themselves in an All-Altitude series against the inspired Nuggets, who beat the Jazz in three out of four games this year.
They also find themselves with many questions and very few answers.
When the Jazz were going through their most successful stretch of the season -- a month-long run at the start of the new year when they won nine straight and 13 of 14 -- it was because, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said, he had inserted Kirilenko into the starting lineup. Over his nine-year career in Utah, Kirilenko has gone from emerging defensive superstar to a player struggling to find his niche as the team's fourth offensive option.
A calf strain kept him out of 15 of the last 17 games, a period in which the Jazz went 11-6 primarily because all but five of the games were against lottery-bound teams. (They went 2-3 against the playoff teams.) And now Kirilenko, the team's highest-paid player, is expected to miss two weeks after aggravating the calf injury in a workout Thursday.
Okur, the team's three-point shooting Turkish center who at his best stretches defenses, which allows Boozer to avoid additional attention inside, has been battling Achilles' tendinitis that has permitted him to play only sporadically in the final weeks of the season.
He scored 14 consecutive first-half points against the Suns on Wednesday to show what he is capable of when left unguarded. But he also moved very slowly in the team's final two games, something that is not likely to improve, he said.
"I am not 100 percent," Okur said. "It is the end of the season. I talked to doctors and our trainer, and this is one of those injuries that is not going to go away without rest. I just want to go out there and give the best that I have at 70 or 80 percent and go from there."
The biggest concern, however, is Boozer, who strained his right oblique against Golden State on Tuesday.
Come this summer, Boozer, 28, will be competing for dollars against other second-tier free agents, like Joe Johnson and Amar'e Stoudemire, and this injury could affect his standing. Boozer has long been viewed as injury-prone and one must wonder how his upcoming free agency will impact his decision-making in regard to the injury, and how potential suitors will view him as a franchise player given this latest setback and its timing.
But for the Jazz, what really matters is how, and if, he'll play against the Nuggets, who were 34-7 at home this season.
This may be a preview of what the Jazz expected to see when they matched Portland's four-year, $32-million offer to power forward Paul Millsap last summer, expediting the rumors of Boozer's departure.
When Boozer was injured against Golden State on Tuesday, Millsap came off the bench to secure 24 rebounds in 34 minutes against the diminutive Warriors. However, in 39 minutes against Phoenix on Wednesday, Millsap had just seven points on 3-for-11 shooting and seven rebounds. In four games against Denver this year, Millsap has averaged 12.7 points and six rebounds in 25 minutes.
Regardless of who is available for Utah, Deron Williams is going to have to play exceptionally if the Jazz are going to advance to the second round.
Williams, one of the top point guards in the NBA, is the linchpin, regardless of everyone's health. "Deron is the engine of the team, he is the motor," Kirilenko said. "When he is going, we are going. He is involved with basically 95 percent of the sets. He is the key player."
What Williams must determine is whether he is going to set up his teammates -- he averaged 10.5 assists a game, third in the league behind Steve Nash and Chris Paul -- or score more than the 18.7 points he averaged during the regular season. Some of that, of course, will depend on who he has available to surround him, a point of consternation that the Jazz are not even attempting to cloak.
"It is tough," Williams said. "We definitely need those guys back to do the things we are talking about. We definitely need those guys to win."
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