Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Despite injuries, Jazz will be a tough out

By John McMullen

Philadelphia, PA - The Utah Jazz lost more than a game on Saturday.

Already without the services of star forward Andrei Kirilenko for their entire Western Conference quarterfinals series against the always-tough Denver Nuggets, Utah lost center Mehmet Okur in the second quarter of a 126-113 setback in Game 1.

An MRI on Sunday confirmed the team's worst fears, revealing Okur ruptured his left Achilles' tendon and will be out for three-to-six months.

Normally, a team minus 40 percent of its starting lineup, staring at an 0-1 hole against opposition that features Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, will start confirming tee times a little early.

Not the Utah Jazz. Not with Jerry Sloan at the controls.

"One thing about a Jerry Sloan-coached team is that they are going to play hard and going to be tough," TNT analyst and NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said before Game 2 on Monday night. "No excuses, that is just the way Jerry Sloan is. They are going to compete or he is going to be whooping some booty over there."

And compete the Jazz did, evening the series by stunning Denver, 114-111, at the Pepsi Center.

Playing without Kirilenko (calf) and Okur, Sloan rode his point guard Deron Williams, who scored 33 points, all night. Williams was 7-of-14 from the floor, but a more impressive 16-of-18 from the charity stripe, a signature characteristic of the young, aggressive Jazz, who made 36-of-47 free throws on the game.

Mehmet Okur ruptured his left Achilles' tendon and will be out for three-to-six months.
Utah also turned to C.J. Miles, who answered with 17 points and six assists, and Paul Millsap, who added 18 points off the bench. Meanwhile, mainstay Carlos Boozer had his customary double-double with 20 points and 15 rebounds.

"This is a big win for us," Williams said. "Everything that is going on injury- wise and nobody really giving us a shot. We just wanted to come out here and put that to rest. We feel like we still have a great team that can compete and we are really proud of how we played and battled tonight."

If the Nuggets thought Utah was going to be an easy out, they now know they are in for a dogfight.

In fact, Barkley thinks Sloan can turn Okur's absence into a positive despite the fact that his replacements, Kyrylo Fesenko and Kosta Koufos, are unproven.

"Those guys are bigger (than Okur) and that will help them against Denver," Barkley said. "They will be able to post up more. I don't know if they can beat Denver but they are going to have a bigger impact on the game. Those guys are going to be more physical and that is going to help them."

Despite wrestling away home-court advantage in the set, the Jazz still face an uphill battle. Injuries to key players tend to show up more in long series and it's hard to imagine either team running away from the other in this set.

It's clear, however, that Utah's biggest advantage is on the bench, where Sloan is matching wits with interim coach Adrian Dantley, who is running the Nuggets while veteran mentor George Karl battles neck and throat cancer.

"Teams take on their coach's personality," Barkley said. "The Utah Jazz are going to play hard because Sloan demands that. Now you flip the switch to Denver, they are a little emotional. Adrian Dantley is too passive for that team and that's no disrespect to him as a coach. There are two types of players: guys that you pat on the back and guys that you kick in the (butt). (Denver has) guys that need to be kicked in the (butt)."

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