December was a crummy month for the Utah Jazz.
There was a six-game losing streak, setbacks in nine of 10 road games and a thick cloud of doubt that started creeping in. Was last season an aberration? Was the surprising run to the Western Conference finals really the product of a favorable draw aided by Golden State's upset of Dallas?
|The addition of sharpshooter Kyle Korver has been a boost for Utah. (Getty Images)|
"I don't know what Memphis is trying to do to us. Trade him to the East. They're in the Western Conference, aren't they, last time I checked, right?" Williams asked Utah reporters after his team handled the short-handed Grizzlies for their eighth consecutive victory. "I damn sure don't feel sympathy for them because they traded the Lakers Pau Gasol."
Had Williams said this a month ago, it would've been very easy to tell him that his Jazz needed to mind their own house before commenting about another's. Now, considering they enter Monday night's home date against New Orleans with wins in 14 of their past 16, it sounds perfectly reasonable. Like most legitimate West contenders, Utah is pretty ticked that Memphis got fleeced by such a dangerous rival.
League observers have immediately taken to lumping the new-look Lakers in with San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas among the conference's powers, which Williams and the Jazz have no problem with. They're used to sneaking up on people and actually prefer that approach. It's having their job made harder that Williams didn't appreciate, adding that the trade makes L.A. "legitimate."
Utah has lost two of three to the Lakers already this season and only has them on the schedule once more (March 20), but its recent run suggests that it too will have a completely different makeup than the last time the teams crossed paths on Dec. 28. The Jazz lost that game 123-109, but have since gotten Andrei Kirilenko healthy, Mehmet Okur back on track and traded for sharp-shooting wing Kyle Korver. It's probably no coincidence that the team's current run coincides with his addition and Kirilenko's return.
In last week's wins over San Antonio, New York and Memphis, the Jazz led the entire way. Only a bad first quarter in Washington kept them from accomplishing that in four of four. When you're flirting with that kind of dominance in the "every-team-makes-a-run" NBA, you know you're going well. Entering this week's games against the Hornets, Nuggets, Kings and Bulls, Utah has a chance to put together the franchise's first double-digit win streak since an 11-game run in April 1999.
|Monday||Dallas at Orlando|
|Monday||New Orleans at Utah|
|Tuesday||Boston at Cleveland|
|Wednesday||San Antonio at Washington|
|Wednesday||Utah at Denver|
|Wednesday||New Orleans at Phoenix|
|Thursday||Cleveland at Houston|
|Friday||L.A. Lakers at Orlando|
|Friday||Portland at Detroit|
|Friday||Washington at Denver|
|Saturday||Atlanta at Houston|
|Saturday||Sacramento at Golden State|
|Sunday||Denver at Cleveland|
|Sunday||San Antonio at Boston|
|Sunday||Washington at Phoenix|
Team of the week: Fate smiles on Toronto this week with an extremely manageable three-game run that it should use to climb seven games above .500 for the first time all season. After visiting the depleted Heat on Monday, the Raptors will have the rest of the week to practice and rest up for weekend games against the Clippers and Timberwolves. That's not exactly a murderer's row. Point guard T.J. Ford will probably play Friday for the first time since leaving Philips Arena on a stretcher after a collision with Hawks rookie Al Horford on Dec. 11, supplying an added boost.
Team of the weak: Memphis has begun life without Gasol, sporting a small lineup featuring Rudy Gay at power forward in a Shawn Marion-like role. Expect that to continue even as the Grizzlies get new acquisitions Kwame Brown and Jason Collins in uniform. Rookie Mike Conley should return to the mix against Milwaukee on Tuesday after missing four games with a rib and chest contusion, which is good news for a franchise striving to move forward without its career leader in starts, rebounds and blocks. Weekend road games at Dallas and New Orleans won't be pretty.
Player to watch: Gasol debuts with the Lakers in a back-to-back against the Nets and Hawks, so his troublesome back will be tested immediately. Fortunately, Lamar Odom's goal of not having him come into a must-win environment has come to fruition thanks to strong weekend performances in Toronto and Washington.
Not to say the pressure is off, but Ronny Turiaf has been excellent in helping fill Andrew Bynum's shoes the past couple games. Gasol will have a chance to get his feet wet without feeling like he has to be some sort of savior. His strong basketball IQ and excellent passing skills should help him fit in quickly. Although he has been the focal point of the Grizzlies' offense his entire career and will no longer be in that role, expect his experiences in international basketball with his native Spain to ease that transition. Gasol is already familiar with principles of the triangle offense predicated on ball movement.
• Another edition of the Chris Paul/Deron Williams rivalry is on tap for Monday. Although both players will forever be tied as the top point guards available in the 2005 NBA Draft, they're extremely friendly with one another. Williams even extended an invite for Paul to come over for a Super Bowl party and had no plans to poison the spinach dip. Williams' Jazz have beaten Paul's Hornets in six of seven head-to-head meetings, including a 99-71 rout in this season's only meeting on Nov. 23.
• Besides Tuesday's game in East Rutherford being Gasol's L.A. debut, it's also an opportunity for the Lakers to take another longing look at Jason Kidd, who helped knock them off 102-100 at Staples Center back on Nov. 25. He had 15 points, seven rebounds and 14 assists to improve to 6-3 against Kobe Bryant's Lakers in his Jersey career.
• Yao Ming (7-foot-6) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (7-3) don't see each other often but have been the tallest pairing in the league since Shawn Bradley retired in 2005. They'll go head-to-head twice this month, coming out of the All-Star break on Feb. 19 and Thursday night in Houston. Ilgauskas has matched up with Yao three times since moving up to No. 2 on the height charts and has seen his Cavs prevail twice despite being outplayed. Yao is averaging 22.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in the three meetings compared to Ilgauskas' 12.7 points, six rebounds and two blocks.
• The last time Kevin Garnett saw the Timberwolves, he strained an abdominal muscle that kept him out of action all of last week. You can bet there's nothing on this earth that's going to keep him from playing Friday night in Minneapolis when his Celtics make their only stop there this season. Garnett, Minnesota's career leader in just about every statistical category imaginable, had 10 points, 16 rebounds and the game-clinching steal in Boston's 87-86 win on Jan. 25, coming out of the locker room after missing four minutes of fourth-quarter action while being checked out.
• While it will look strange to see Chris Webber in a Warriors uniform for the first time on Thursday night against Chicago, it will be even more surreal watching him suit up against Sacramento, which visits Saturday. While this will be the seventh time he faces his former team since the Kings shipped him to Philadelphia in February 2005, it will be his first game against the Kings as a Pacific Division rival. He has logged double-doubles in five of the six games against Sacramento over the past three years, averaging 14.8 points and 11.2 rebounds. It's unlikely he'll see enough minutes to approach those averages in just his second game with Golden State, although he will have a week of practice time under his belt with his new squad.
• The NBA is poised to try and capture sports fans looking for something to watch on Sunday now that another NFL season is in the books. If your discerning tastes prevent you from watching a game as meaningless as the Pro Bowl, nationally televised games featuring Carmelo Anthony against LeBron James, Kobe Bryant visiting Dwyane Wade and Tim Duncan squaring off against Garnett could hit the spot.