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THE JAZZ Has a Brand-new Beat
Chris Ballard
December 08, 2003
That old refrain of Stockton-to-Malone is over, and youngsters Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Arroyo have given Utah an up-tempo game
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December 08, 2003

The Jazz Has A Brand-new Beat

That old refrain of Stockton-to-Malone is over, and youngsters Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Arroyo have given Utah an up-tempo game

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Imagine turning on the CBS news one night and, instead of Dan Rather sitting there, in all his square-jawed solemnity, there was some bony Russian kid with a spiky hairdo. Then imagine quickly surfing in search of Tom Brokaw—steady old Brokaw—only to see, occupying his chair, a baby-faced Puerto Rican with an earring.

In a sense, this is what's happening to Utah Jazz fans. For 17 years Salt Lake City was the domain of John Stockton and Karl Malone, the city's own Rather and Brokaw—or, to use a sports analogy, its Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Night after night the stoic, efficient Stockton threw the perfect bounce pass to the stoic, chiseled Malone as the Mailman roared down the wing like one of the big rigs he is so fond of. That's almost 1,400 games of the same pick-and-roll plays, of Stockton pulling up for his shoulder-launched jumper, of Malone seemingly rooted at the foul line, his knees tilted inward and his lips mouthing words mat no one could decipher. Seventeen years of edging thisclose to a title before exiting at Almostville.

Now, in the wake of those two Dream Teamers comes 22-year-old Andrei Kirilenko, a power forward with swizzle-stick arms, and 24-year-old Carlos Arroyo, a vagabond point guard. So little was expected of the new duo and their young, anonymous teammates that most publications—this one included—picked the Jazz to finish last in the Western Conference, especially after the free agents it signed to offer sheets over the summer, Los Angeles Clippers forward Corey Maggette and Atlanta Hawks point guard Jason Terry, were retained by their clubs. columnist Frank Hughes went so far as to predict that Utah would break the alltime record for futility (nine wins) set by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1972-73.

So what in the name of Hot Rod Hundley is going on at the Delta Center? Behind the coaching of a rejuvenated Jerry Sloan and the play of Kirilenko and Arroyo, Utah was 9-6 through Sunday and had already beaten such Western playoff contenders as the Houston Rockets, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Phoenix Suns and the Minnesota Timberwolves (twice). Those victories are almost secondary to the new crew's other major accomplishment: making Jazz basketball exciting to watch. On sports radio shows and Internet message boards some fans have begun expressing a previously sacrilegious sentiment—that the team may be better off without Stockton and Malone.

Take last week's 83-76 home victory over the Rockets. Even with Arroyo sidelined by a sprained left ankle, Utah players ran the floor, hustled like crazy, threw alley-oops for dunks, swatted Yao Ming's shots against the backboard and—in a definite Stockton and Malone no-no—had the gall to be animated during a fourth-quarter scoring burst. "I'll tell you, I miss those two guys horribly," says Jazz strength and conditioning coach Mark McKown. "But these kids are fun to watch, aren't they?"

No longer are Utah games as formulaic as an episode of Three's Company. The core system is the same as it's been for a dozen years, but in the past the Jazz ran almost exclusively a one-guard front to take full advantage of Stockton's decision-making; now it's a two-guard look that creates more ball movement and more touches for everybody. (Exhibit A: Four players are averaging between 11 and 18 points.) And while about 25 of Utah's approximately 75 set plays are still predicated on the pick-and-roll, those 25 don't see as much action as they used to. Now, says Kirilenko in his fractured English, "Coach calls plays for who is scoring. Before, we stand and watch Karl and John. Now everybody is involved."

The 61-year-old Sloan is clearly enjoying his new team. "The fun part of coming to work every day for me is finding a way to win with the guys we have," he says. "Physically we may be overmatched, but you can still play basketball if you do it as a group."

Long known for his old-school values and ref-directed tirades, Sloan has mellowed this season, reducing his sideline f bombs and player lambastings. "It's a nice change," says center Greg Ostertag, a frequent resident of Sloan's doghouse in years past. "He'll still get on you, but now he'll back off and say what he likes about what you're doing." Says Sloan, almost apologetically, "I don't like mistakes, but I also have to understand that these players have to grow some and I have to bite the bullet a little bit."

Because of Utah's surprising success, Sloan is suddenly a front-runner for Coach of the Year, an award that, despite his 15 straight playoff appearances, he has never won. His take on the matter is predictably Sloanian—"I've never played or coached basketball for a compliment," he says. "I could give a s—about that"—but others think the honor is overdue. "Jerry always got credit from coaches," says Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy. "I don't think fans realized his greatness like they realized Stockton or Malone's greatness."

Minus those two, the closest thing this year's team has to a star is Kirilenko. Lithe and flamingo-legged at 225 pounds, the 6'9" forward has flourished as a starter in his third season, averaging 17-3 points, 75 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.9 steals at week's end while shooting 51.1% from the floor and 88.0% from the free throw line. Against the Rockets he not only made clutch baskets, scoring 23 points on a variety of three-pointers, follow dunks and fearless drives, but also excelled on defense, swooping in from the help side to bat away shots three times and pinning two more shots against the glass. Two nights later, in a 98-81 win over the Seattle SuperSonics, Kirilenko had four steals and four blocks to go along with 12 boards.

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