The Utah Jazz are about as up and down as any of the other good-but-not-great teams in the NBA. At home, they are 11-4, but their road record is 4-6. They’ve lost to Oklahoma City, Sacramento, and Minnesota (twice). Nevertheless, Utah cannot be taken lightly, as they have recorded recent wins against the Orlando Magic and LA Lakers, something the Hawks themselves haven’t been able to do yet this season.
The Hawks embark on a four game road trip that starts in Chicago tomorrow evening, followed by visits to Minnesota, Denver and Indiana. After that, they’ll face back to back contests with Cleveland, which will be split between the two cities.
HAWKS VS JAZZ
The Hawks sit at 18-6 and second in the eastern conference, while the Jazz hold fifth place in the west, with a record of 15-10. Yet, both teams are 7-3 in their last ten games. The difference? Atlanta is on a five game winning streak, while the Jazz have had consecutive wins just once in the last eight games.
Deron Williams versus…..who? Williams is big, physical, quicker than he looks, and has great court vision. Oh, and he can shoot (49% from the field). So who guards him? Is this the time for Woodson to employ the switching defense and hope for the best, or will Joe Johnson get the assignment? Perhaps a combination of both, such as which the Hawks employed against the Brandon Roy and the Blazers (hey, it worked). Whatever the gameplan is, Williams will provide a challenge with his shooting AND his passing.
Carlos Boozer vs. Josh Smith or Al Horford. Again, there may be a question mark here. Boozer is a bear in the post, as his 20 and 10 numbers would suggest. He can also hit the short to midrange jumper. But do you guard him with the lighter, but rangier and faster jumping Josh Smith….or the heavier, stronger Al Horford? Part of the answer lies in who you can get away with using to defend Mehmet Okur. The Jazz center is far less of an offensive threat down low than Boozer, and likes to shoot from the outside, where he tends to be quite effective. On the other end of the floor, how do the Jazz defend Horford and Smith? Neither Boozer nor Okur are premiere defenders, but they aren’t doormats either. However, the athletic Hawks frontcourt duo can do much to hurt the Jazz and keep them on their heels.
I wonder how many text messages Ronnie Brewer got from OJ Mayo and Rudy Gay? One of them better include a full scouting report on Joe Johnson, the guy who smoked Gay and Mayo enroute to an easy 26 point outing against Memphis a couple days ago. Brewer is a decent defender, but Johnson is on a bit of a tear in the last three games, shooting over 50% in each, and averaging over 22 points and 6 assists per game. The real kicker to all of this? Joe got this done on averages of just 14 shots and 28-29 minutes per game. Joe is looking as smooth, efficient, and hard to stop as he ever has.
Bench vs. Bench
The Jazz roster includes twelve guys who are playing over 10 minutes per game. Of course, that generic stat can be somewhat misleading (as any stat can). For example, Kyle Korver has only played 2 games this season, Andrei Kirilenko has been limited to 19, CJ Miles has played 7, Ronnie Price has participated in 8, and Kyrylo Fesenko has managed 17. Nevertheless, the Utah bench has been a staple for the Jazz. While everybody is familiar with Paul Milsap, rookie guard Wesley Matthews has been making the most noise recently. The kid is shooting just under 48% from the field, and is averaging nearly 9 points per game.
Meanwhile, what was once a bad joke for the Atlanta Hawks has now become a strength to be reckoned with. Atlanta’s bench has jelled and risen from what used to be a one man show, to a multi-headed monster. As with Paul Milsap, Jamal Crawford was a known quantity before this season. But guys like Maurice Evans have raised their games and meshed well with the newly acquire Crawford, the always determined Pachulia, the veteran Joe Smith, and the rookie point guard, Jeff Teague. It’s not that these guys have all just improved or excelled individually. It’s that they really play comfortably with each other, and with the starters as well. Nobody seems to be out of joint.
Although he was about a year late to the party, the bench mob also has to welcome Randolph Morris. After shedding weight and increasing effort, Morris finally looks like a guy who deserves regular playing time. The defensive effort is there, and the offensive polish reminds people of what he was able to do before he entered the league. Welcome to the show, RandMo!
Woodson vs. Sloan
Yes, I said it. The guys in the suits on the sidelines actually have an effect on this game. Iron sharpens iron, as the saying goes, and nothing is a better cerebral exercise for a coach than to go against a respected opponent. Jerry Sloan has been in the head coaching game much longer than Mike Woodson has, and he is going to throw every trick in the book at him. Sloan will work the refs constantly. His guys will run the pick and roll relentlessly and from different angles. He’ll make adjustments on both ends of the court. And he’ll make you think, rather than watch. It’s way too early to talk about what happens in the playoffs, but it’s never too soon to learn tricks of the trade from guys who are in the playoffs just about every year.
Sloan and his team will do their best to enforce their will on this game, despite the fact that they are not a good road team. Woodson will have a wonderful opportunity to outwit and outmaneuver one of the best basketball minds in the business, a guy who provides a true challenge, rather than somebody who relys purely on star power. Woodson gets to show the leadership and savvy that has guided this team to new heights in recent times. For a hard-working man who loves his job, what could be better?
What or who is the X factor in this game? Can Deron Williams be stopped or slowed? Can Joe Johnson? The Hawks have made life miserable on lesser teams with their harassing defense and selflessness on offense. Can they do so against a good team that is well coached?