Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Don't Look Now

As recently as three weeks ago, the Jazz were well outside the NBA playoff picture and looked dead in the water. A young team just a year removed from the Western Conference Finals, Utah prompted a great deal of hand-wringing on the part of pundits and Jazz fans alike. I even took a shot at them when they made what appeared to be a panic trade to acquire Kyle Korver and rid themselves of malcontent Gordon Giricek. However, what most people didn't realize when this team was barely above .500 is that Utah was playing a murderous schedule and was dealing with significant health issues.

What a difference 10 games makes. Since losing at Portland on January 5th, Utah has gone 9-1 and (with Denver's loss tonight) vaulted into first place in the Northwest Division. Suddenly, if the playoffs started today, they would be the #4 seed. Not only that, but they once again resemble a true title contender. The Jazz is back to dominating on its home floor and boasts a +11.4 per game scoring margin over the past 10.

Tonight they picked up a win that should put the rest of the league on notice as they beat San Antonio 97-91. Andrei Kirilenko looked as good as he has since the Warriors series last spring, Boozer battled Duncan to a draw in the paint, and Deron Williams absolutely manhandled Tony Parker. Ronnie Brewer didn't fare well against Manu Ginobili, but Utah can otherwise feel great about the matchups against the Spurs, across the board.

I still like Dallas to quietly come out of the West when it is all said and done, but make no mistake, Utah is right back in the title mix. In fact, I like them better than either Phoenix or San Antonio at this point and you have to like their chances against upstarts like New Orleans or Portland. Throw in the way they manhandled the Warriors in the second round last year and there don't seem to be many teams in the West that Utah couldn't beat in a seven-game series. I'd probably take Denver, Dallas, and maybe a healthy Lakers team. Otherwise, I like Utah.

The West gets crazier by the day.

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