The importance of the game could be measured by the nonstop heckling behind the Suns' bench last Thursday in Phoenix, where a pair of thirtysomethings in Jazz shirts with Tom Arnold voices were doing all they could to help visiting Utah end a two-game losing streak. Suns forward Amar'e Stoudemire heard sarcastic compliments about his stretching regimen as he waited to reenter the game, Steve Nash got the requisite chants of U-S-A!, and Jason Richardson was urged to accept a Facebook invitation. When none of that fazed Phoenix, which built its lead to double digits, the Utah boosters went for broke. "We need this game!" one of them shouted at lead referee Tom Washington during a fourth-quarter break. "Tom, I'm going to give up one of my wives for a win!"
Washington and Suns coach Alvin Gentry tried, and failed, to stifle their laughter. After a long while Gentry looked over his shoulder and responded, "Which one?"
In many ways the two babbling Jazz fans are the opposite of the team they love, which pulled out a thrilling 116--108 comeback win to stay in the hunt for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Utah is an all-business, no-nonsense outfit led by 25-year-old point guard Deron Williams, who constructively lectured teammates for failing to run plays properly against Phoenix while urging them to keep up the fight. Ultimately Williams, who scored 13 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter, took the biggest shots—including a three with 1:37 left that put the Jazz ahead for good. Afterward he was asked if he was playing the best basketball of his five-year NBA career. "No," said Williams, "not even close."
Williams has always held himself to an exacting standard. In his second season he guided Utah to the conference finals; ever since, he's been unwilling to accept anything less. In 2008, though, the Lakers eliminated the Jazz in the second round, and last year they knocked Utah out in the first. After a lethargic start this season, another early exit seemed inevitable. But a two-month stretch of 21 wins in 26 games through Sunday has elevated the Jazz toward the top of the West, where defending champion Los Angeles has settled, waiting for a challenger to emerge. "I think [the Jazz] will be Number 2 in the conference," says Clippers coach Kim Hughes. Then he gives his reasons: the renewed confidence of small forward Andrei Kirilenko; the low-post scoring of power forward Carlos Boozer and his backup, Paul Millsap; the versatility of center Mehmet Okur, a lethal three-point shooter who can also exploit smaller defenders inside; and Williams, who at week's end was averaging 18.4 points and 10.1 assists.
In the last month Williams has made his first All-Star Game appearance (in his hometown of Dallas) and earned this lofty praise from Bobcats coach Larry Brown: "I don't think there's a better player in the league than Deron Williams." Hughes added his voice to the growing chorus of those who rate Williams even with Hornets rival Chris Paul as the world's best playmaker. "Whoever is guarding him is going to need help all of the time, and if he posts up, we'll double him on the dribble," Hughes said last Saturday in Salt Lake City. "We'll spend a majority of our defensive thought process trying to stop him."
A couple of hours later Hughes watched Williams play more of a decoy role, taking just nine shots but distributing 10 assists in a comfortable 107--85 win that kept Utah fourth in the West, two games behind the second-place Mavericks. Said Williams afterward, "I just try to keep everybody happy."
If Williams is Utah's updated version of John Stockton, then the role of Karl Malone belongs to the 6'9" Boozer, who after a rough start was averaging 19.6 points and 11.1 rebounds through Sunday. Since signing with the Jazz for $70 million over six years in 2004, Boozer has played to extremes: While he's been an All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist, he's also been seen as unreliable after missing 137 games in six years.
The anticipation that Boozer would opt out of his contract last summer (he didn't) or be traded (the Jazz couldn't find a suitable partner after a season in which he missed 45 games) created a teamwide hangover that resulted in a 19--17 start. "All this talk whether I was going to be here or not be here, it was a distraction for us," says Boozer. "I played inconsistent, our guys played inconsistent."
But the good Boozer has returned, extending his range to 17 feet while upping his assists to a career-best 3.3 per game. His versatility with either hand around the basket enables the Jazz to maintain the fluid unpredictability that has defined coach Jerry Sloan's teams for 22 years. "Booz tries to do everything he's asked," says player development coach Mark McKown. "He's the first guy in the arena every game day. He even does everything like you'd want him to do in warmups. How many guys do that? Guys hate warmups."
The Jazz began to turn its season right-side-up following a 105--86 loss at Boston on Nov. 11. "It was how they beat us," says Williams. "They didn't care who got the points, who got the assists, who got the steals, it was a total team effort and they were having fun." Which is precisely how Utah is playing now.