SALT LAKE CITY -- Exactly one month ago today, Jazz owner Larry Miller said of his team, "We suck." They had lost six out of seven and 12 out of 18, including a 28-point loss to Phoenix, and had dropped out of a top-four playoff seed in the West.
Jazz make winning a habit
Back then, the Western Conference finals seemed the farthest thing from the minds of Jazz players. They just wanted to get a couple wins ... against anyone. But out of the blue, the Jazz are as hot as any team in basketball, having won eight playoff games out of 10. They proved it Tuesday with arguably their best effort yet, a 100-87 waxing of Golden State in Game 5 that conclusively ended any remaining debate about who had the better basketball team.
"Somehow they got desire and spark and it truly is a team," Miller said after the game. "And they act like teammates and care about each other like teammates. It's something we felt was in there, but to have it come out at a time like this was really wonderful."
What was amazing about Tuesday night's effort was that Utah won so easily despite doing so many things wrong. Point guard Deron Williams, a star for most of the series, was a basket case Tuesday night, going 1-for-11. The Jazz turned it over 25 times, with coach Jerry Sloan saying he couldn't ever recall winning so handily with so many miscues.
And the Jazz wasted a golden opportunity late in the third quarter, when the Warriors seemed in classic meltdown mode after a flagrant foul and two technicals in a span of 37 seconds ... only to see Utah somehow come away with nary a point from the exchange. (The technical on Matt Barnes, by the way, was hands-down the worst call of the playoffs. If the Warriors never see Ken "No Clapping Please" Mauer again, it will be too soon.)
But once again, it was Andrei Kirilenko to the rescue.
The resurgent Russian had 21 points, 15 rebounds and three steals, and he missed only four shots from the field. He also had perhaps the signature defensive play of the game, intimidating Matt Barnes out of a breakaway layup attempt that ultimately ended in a Warrior turnover.
It's no coincidence that Utah's turnaround came just as AK-47 was finding his groove. "We got Andrei back and we got [Gordan] Giricek back," Sloan said of his team's sudden turnaround. "Those two guys helped us get to be fairly competitive ... and then Andrei struggled a bit to start the Houston series, but he got his game together and did an about-face."
"We're that fragile," Sloan added, noting the vulnerability of nearly every team to the injury bug.
But in this series, the Jazz looked anything but fragile. Once again they crushed a smaller Golden State team on the glass, with 20 offensive boards compared to just six for the opponents. And they got another big effort from the bench, with Paul Millsap piling up nine points and 12 boards, and Dee Brown returning to the lineup to solidify the point when Williams had foul trouble.
And against a much faster team, Utah again vastly exceeded expectations at the defensive end. Utah held Golden State to just 33 second-half points, and once again totally neutralized Stephen Jackson -- he went 3-for-17, and it appears he'll figure out sometime during Game 12 that he can't take Kirilenko one-on-one.
Now, with a spot in the conference finals secured, the Jazz are essentially playing with house money. "Nobody told us we had to be there," said Sloan. "In the past, when Karl [Malone] and John [Stockton] were here, that was expected."
Perhaps that's why Sloan was so relaxed before the game, delivering quips like, "You can't win the Kentucky Derby with a jackass," and, "There's nothing long-term about a [coach at age] 65, except maybe Social Security."
Even Miller knows the season is already a success, saying, "We don't have goals and expectations now."
What he does have, however, is perhaps the league's most intimidating home crowd -- one so loud that even the losing coach had to commend it.
"This is one of the loudest crowds I've ever coached [against] before," said Golden State's Don Nelson, who has been coaching in the NBA since shortly after the Pilgrims landed. "This is an unbelievable fan base here, and the Jazz should be very proud of that as well. We're trying to compete with [them] and I think we're close, but I don't know. [It's a] fantastic crowd, unbelievable in this building. It was fun to be in this game."
With that crowd and this momentum, don't expect the Jazz to roll over in the conference finals either -- not with a rejuvenated AK-47 giving them four legit stars in the starting lineup. After taking tomorrow off to rest and recover, they'll get back to work on figuring out how to keep their magical playoff run going -- perhaps after a layoff of as long as six days.
"I think we made our goal already, but I don't want to stop it -- I want to keep playing," said Kirilenko.
"Either the Spurs or the Suns, we can beat. We just need to play with the same dedication and concentration that we played the two rounds before."
And as for Miller's comments a month ago? Fortunately, his team has a thick skin.
"When Larry starts yelling, sometimes we don't have very good hearing," Sloan said.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images
After making the biggest playoff upset possible, Warriors guard Baron Davis will now take a seat to watch the rest of the playoffs.
Suns coach Mike D'Antoni will likely start James Jones or Leandro Barbosa in Amare Stoudemire's place, with an outside shot that little-used Jalen Rose or Pat Burke plays some emergency minutes in the frontcourt. It'll be the first game Stoudemire has missed this season in his comeback.
The Spurs will be counting on Tim Duncan, Francisco Elson and Fabricio Oberto to avoid foul trouble over the next two games while Robert Horry serves his suspension. "There's no real strategy I can talk about to replace our most dominant player and one of our best post players," Steve Nash told ESPN.com on Tuesday night. "Obviously it's a big blow. We're just going to have to fight as hard as we can." The Suns' solace is that they have recent experience playing -- and winning -- a crucial playoff game after losing a key player to suspension. Raja Bell was forced to sit out Game 6 of Phoenix's first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers last season after an infamous Game 5 takedown of Kobe Bryant. Trailing the series 3-2, Phoenix won that Game 6 in L.A. without their primary Bryant defender and ultimately closed out the Lakers in seven.
I disagreed with [NBA discipline chief] Stu Jackson many, many times over the years. I disagree with him now and the rules of the NBA that have suspended Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for a game for reacting as any normal loyal teammate would react under the circumstance, especially when the Suns' coaching staff did a great job of controlling the player's movements toward the altercation.
I could just imagine the conversation that Jackson and I would have had if I was the coach of the Suns. Ouch! It would have tested the best of relationships. The bottom line is I know Stu Jackson. The NBA could not ask for a more capable person to fill the position of senior vice president of basketball operations. He is a man of tremendous class and integrity. He has coached enough games in his career to know the ramification of his decision-making.
When Ben Gordon is making 3s as he was Tuesday (5-for-6), the Bulls' prospects always seem brighter.
Quote of the Day:
-- Andrew Ayres
I'm just off a conference call in which Stu Jackson explained his decision to suspend Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench during the fracas at the end of Game 4 of the Suns-Spurs series, and I'm searching for the right words to describe my reaction.
Let's see if this does it: Jackson's decision is utterly, profoundly, alarmingly, unreasonably ridiculous.
Or how about this: Idiocy's advocate just unloaded another haymaker on common sense.
But I'm settling on something simpler: This is just plain stupid.
"This is a very unfortunate incident, but the rule is the rule," Jackson said. "It's not a matter of fairness. It's a matter of correctness, and this is the right decision."
Right decision? Upholding a black-and-white rule -- when there was so much gray area here -- is the right thing to do? Giving people another reason to unleash NBA conspiracy theories is the right decision? Being so rigid on this one rule -- when there are so many others open to interpretation -- is the right decision? Puh-leeeze, Stu.
Whether it was his defense on Chauncey Billups (after guarding Richard Hamilton for the first four games) or his penetration on offense, repeatedly splitting the seams in the defense to create open shots for both himself and his teammates, it was Kirk Hinrich who put his stamp on Game 5 and took the next big step in the post-Baby Bulls maturation process.
"We've come a ways," Hinrich said. "For a lot of us the second round was new ground, we came in and kind of got overwhelmed. Kind of got hit in the mouth, and now we're relaxed, fighting and playing pretty well."
SALT LAKE CITY -- So, where to from here for the Warriors?
It was a great run to the conference semifinals, especially considering the torrid stretch from early March to the beginning of May that got Golden State into the postseason and past Dallas in a shocking first-round upset.
That's why Stephen Jackson left the court applauding, and why for now the Warriors are looking on the bright side. "There will be no teary eyes in our locker room," said Don Nelson, while his team, to a man, was gracious in saying Utah played better and deserved to win.
Nelson also bristled at my question about what the team needs to do to get over the hump. "The hump was not making the playoffs for the past 12 years." Said Nelson. "If we didn't get over the hump this year, something's wrong."
Unfortunately, the second round of the playoffs is going to be the new hump unless Golden State's two big weaknesses that manifested themselves in this series -- a lack of size and a lack of composure -- aren't addressed.