Modern Jazz still old-school tough

Not all that Jazz again. . . .

There was a time, before Karl Malone finished his career here as the world's most physical teddy bear, when the mere words "Utah Jazz" inspired fear and loathing among Lakers fans.

It was the dawn of the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant era, before they even started feuding (or winning anything), when the talented young Lakers seemed to bump into the venerable old Jazz annually.

In 1997, Utah stunned the Lakers, 4-1, in a series best remembered for Bryant's four airballs in Game 5.

Of course, with that experience under their belts, the Lakers were sure they would handle the old guys in the next season's West finals.

The Lakers were favored after pulverizing Seattle, after which SuperSonics Coach George Karl (probably just a coincidence) announced, "We might have awakened a great team."

Remembering Utah center Greg Foster's throat-slashing gestures the spring before, the Lakers' Rick Fox announced, "I hold grudges for a long time."

Lakers coach Del Harris said the physical Jazz style wasn't "good for the credibility of the game."

Whatever that style was, it was good enough to sweep the Lakers, 4-0, this time.

Lakers guard Nick Van Exel argued with Harris on the court in Game 3 but saw enough of the game to compare it to "project guys" playing "a bunch of guys who set the pick-and-rolls. . . . .

"Maybe it's the age," Van Exel said. "We feel if we go out there and just lace up the shoes and run around and do the dunks and do all the little things that we can win.

"But it's not like that."

Unfortunately, the day before Game 4, Van Exile, er, Exel yelled "Cancun!" instead of "Lakers!" as they broke the huddle in practice, angered O'Neal and wound up in Denver.

So there's good news in case the Lakers want to avenge Van Exel and Fox is still holding that grudge:

The Jazz is back!

This is an upset in itself. With its small market and tight budget, the Jazz got back to the conference finals last spring, just four years after Malone and John Stockton left.

Of course, there could never be another Old School team like their old one -- could there?

This Jazz team actually resembles those teams, just with younger players, more offense (No. 5) and less defense (No. 13).

Carlos Boozer, 26, and Deron Williams, 23, are not Malone and Stockton (or won't be until they pass 36,000 points and 15,000 assists) but they're good and they still run pick-and-rolls from the time they get off the bus.

Now as then, the coach is Jerry Sloan, in his 20th season (while Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Larry Brown worked for 11 NBA teams and one in the NCAA), still playing his credibility-threatening, manly man-to-man defense.

Now as then, the Jazz has the most NBA's most underrated front office with one of Brown's old UCLA assistants, Kevin O'Connor, having succeeded Scott Layden.

Emblematic of today's Jazz is Williams, the third-year point guard who's better known as Chris Paul's rival than as a major comer in his own right.

Among opposing coaches, they're more like 1 and 1A with no clear-cut decision on which is which.

Each is tailor-made for his system, Paul for freewheeling New Orleans, Williams for Sloan's structured offense.

At midseason the Clippers' Mike Dunleavy had them even. ("It's like, who's the last guy I just saw? That guy is really good.")

Of course, Paul just dominated the first-round playoff rout of Dallas, averaging 24.6 points, 12 assists and shooting 50% to Jason Kidd's 8.6, 6.8 and 42%.

"You'd probably say that Chris Paul has moved ahead," says Dunleavy, who did color commentary for TNT, "except every time they play, Utah wins and Deron Williams has a really good game."

Paul and Williams are friendly so this is more like a revolution than a rivalry.

Arriving together in the 2005 draft (Utah traded up with Portland to get Williams at No. 3, Paul went No. 4), they're raising the level of point-guard play, in tandem.

If Steve Nash's scoring, assists and accuracy (51% overall, 45% on three-point shots the last four seasons) changed the game, here come his successors, in tandem.

Paul averaged 21.1 points this season, was No. 1 in assists, shot 49% and 37% on threes. After the All-Star break, he was at 51% and 42%.

Williams averaged 18.8 points, was No. 3 in assists and shot 51% and 40%.

"They're franchises in themselves," says San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich, "and usually point guards aren't franchises."

Oh, and now, as then, the Jazz is death at home.

It's not the Delta Center anymore but EnergySolutions Arena. Whether it's a center or an arena, the Jazz just went 37-4 in it during the regular season.

"They're very good but they're still young," says Denver assistant general manager Dave Fredman, who spent 15 seasons on Sloan's coaching staff. "They still have a lot to learn and go through.

"For instance, they lost Game 3 at home [to Houston]. Missed 13 free throws. Came out taking jump shots instead of executing. When they execute, when they help each other defensively, I think they can beat anybody.

"I don't know if this is their year or this could be their year. But I think if they keep it together, they're going to be tough to beat."

As usual, the Lakers are favored, more glamorous, more athletic and George Karl, now in Denver, just heralded their greatness.

They had just better hope that stuff means more than it used to.


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