Jazz on Upward Swing

Photo: Melissa Majchrzak NBAE/Getty ImagesPhoto: Melissa Majchrzak NBAE/Getty Images

The Utah Jazz started 2014 off the right way, with a 96-87 win against the Milwaukee Bucks. The victory pushed the Jazz to .500 in their last 20 games, the first time they can make that claim all season. While winning half your games isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire, it’s a drastic improvement from the 1-14 start they suffered.

Yet to string more than two wins together, the Jazz are gaining confidence. The players feel like they can compete with any team on any given night. It’s an obvious change in attitude and it’s spreading through the locker room.

Why the sudden improvement? How have the Jazz managed to turnaround a season that started on pace for a 6-76 record?

For starters, they got healthy. The two players that perhaps deserve most the credit in the “getting healthy” line of thought are Marvin Williams and Trey Burke.

Williams played through an achilles/heel injury for most of last year before having surgery on it last summer. He recovered a little bit quicker than reports originally suggested he might, and his presence on the court makes a world of difference for Utah. In games he’s started this season the Jazz are 10-7. The team’s offense transforms with him in the starting lineup because of his ability to play the stretch-four. Shooting 40.6 percent from three he opens up the paint by being a constant threat from beyond the arc.

Veteran Richard Jefferson noted how important not just Williams is, but an entire healthy roster is when asked why the turnaround for the Jazz.

“We got healthy,” Jefferson said. “We started off the season missing a ton of key players and as they got back, as we got our rhythm, we started to win games.”

Burke has made as much of a positive impact as any team can hope for from a rookie point guard. Even if the assists totals aren’t league-leading, he controls the ball as well as any rookie in the league refusing to give up turnovers. He is top 15 in the NBA with 2.7 assists for every turnover he commits. Only six players in front of him on that list play 30 plus minutes a night as he does.

His performance really is remarkable, after missing so many games at the start of the season to injury, he’s hardly missed a beat jumping an NBA lineup and appears to have a very bright future. For now though, it’s enough for him and the rest of the team to understand that some consistency in the rotation is making a big difference.

“I think our chemistry is getting there, it’s getting way better,” Diante Garrett said echoing the sentiment of the entire locker room. “A lot of guys were hurt, in and out, and now we’ve got everybody back.”

With the team believing health is the reason they’re suddenly competitive, one might like to point out who the Jazz have beat during this recent uptick.

The Jazz so far have played one of the league’s five toughest schedules. That’s a fancy stat and proves that they’re unlikely to finish with a lower winning percentage than the 31 percent mark they currently hold. But it is worth mentioning their last few wins haven’t exactly come against the association’s upper echelon. Starting with the most recent, Utah’s last five wins have come against the Bucks, Bobcats, Lakers, Bobcats and Magic. The four teams have a combined record of 40-86.

The Jazz, for now, are beating the team’s they’re supposed to beat and rarely going beyond that. If the season ended today Utah would only have three wins against playoff bound teams. One of those wins came against Chicago while they were playing without their superstar Derrick Rose for the second time this season having just barely been ruled out for the year.

Even though .500 ball isn’t ideal for a franchise that used to be a playoff mainstay, it’s substantially better than where Utah started this year and better than what fans expected. Winning in the NBA can create a snowball effect, and while the Jazz aren’t a playoff team, they do feel like they’re finally on a roll.

“For everybody, it should feel better because you work so hard and now you’re getting some wins at the end of it,” head coach Tyrone Corbin said. “We have a lot of work left to do and the guys have been tremendous about staying focused and continuing to work and holding each other accountable.”

Coming into an obvious rebuilding year it’s pretty impressive that the Jazz have been able to figure things out the way they have.  Health is one thing but since Burke rejoined the lineup the Jazz are a different team.  They are a better team and it’s obvious.

After such a bad start, most fans thought the Jazz would be content with losing and basically just “mail in” the season.  Personally, I’m happy to see the Jazz aren’t fine with losing and genuinely care about improving.

What we’ve seen in the last 20 games is a young team starting to “get it.”  They are figuring out not just how to play together but how to win together.  Our young Jazz are putting it together and it’s a credit to the players and the coaches.

I’ll finish with the words of Derrick Favors after the win over the Bucks last night.

“A lot of guys during the summer time, they work hard. They get their bodies in shape,” Favors said. “We don’t come into the season looking to lose just to get into the lottery and pick whoever. As players we come in here and play hard and try to showcase our talent to the rest of the league and try to get wins.”

Skyler Hardman, a Utah native and life long Jazz fan, dreamed of covering the team at an age when most of his peers were still hoping to play in the NBA.  Before the Jazz, he spent time covering Snow College and BYU for various outlets. You can find him on Twitter @Skydiz
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