Friday , Jan , 13 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

Jazz starting to look like a playoff team

By Warren Blatt, Sports Network NBA Editor

(Sports Network) – The Utah Jazz owned a 4-7 record 11 games into the 2005-06
campaign. However, they have started to find their game and the results are
showing up in the standings.

After 36 games played, Utah (19-17) sits in first place in the competitive
Northwest Division. After a solid start, the Minnesota Timberwolves have
started to have their share of problems, while the Denver Nuggets and Seattle
SuperSonics are not playing consistent basketball. The Portland Trail Blazers
are the only team in the division that is not a serious threat.

Center Mehmet Okur and forward Andrei Kirilenko led the Jazz to a 110-102
victory over the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wachovia Center. Okur finished with
25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, while Kirilenko netted 23,
grabbed six boards and blocked four shots for Utah, which moved to two games
above .500 and extended its winning streak to three games.

Reserve guard Milt Palacio gave the Jazz a big lift off the bench in the win
over the 76ers. He logged 26 minutes and contributed 17 points on five-of-six
from the field. Palacio was also seven-for-eight from the charity stripe.

“He’s (Palacio) terrific, he was terrific down the stretch,” said Utah head
coach Jerry Sloan about Palacio’s performance against Philadelphia. “He made
his free throws; he took the ball to the basket and just played extremely
well. He seemed to be very confident playing in that position.”

The victory over Philadelphia gave the Jazz a solid 3-1 record on a four-game
road trip. After getting blown out by Memphis in the opener of the swing, they
picked up impressive wins over Detroit, Washington and the Sixers.

Forward Matt Harpring, who scored in double-digits in the three wins on the
road trip, ended with 14 points, five rebounds and three assists in the win
over the 76ers.

“Just execution, we say it all the time, but when we get away from that and
guys try to do too much outside of our offense were not a very good team,”
said Harpring about Utah’s successful road trip, “When we stay within what we
can do, trust our offense, come off screens, pass the ball, and shoot the ball
when we’re open we can beat anyone.”

Kirilenko, who missed 10 games earlier this season because of an ankle injury,
has picked up his production. In his first 26 outings, the one-time All-Star
has averaged 14.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.2 blocks. Since
returning from his injury on November 29th, the 6-9 forward has scored in
double-digits in 15 of 19 contests and has collected eight double-doubles.

Okur has teamed with Kirilenko to give the Jazz two very solid frontcourt
players. The 6-11 Okur has played in all 36 of Utah’s games and leads the club
in scoring (17.7 ppg) and rebounding (9.4 rpg). He has registered 14 double-
doubles and has developed into the player the Jazz hoped he would when they
signed him to a lucrative, multi-year contract in July 2004.

“We are still the same team inside,” said Kirilenko. “Our chemistry is
unbelievable; we laugh and have a great time together. I think at a point you
will succeed when your team stays together and helps each other.”

Utah’s offense is starting to flow. It has scored 90 or more points in eight
of its last 10 contests and is 4-1 when it scores 100 or more points.

The Jazz shot an amazing 58.8 percent (40-for-68) from the field in the win
over the Sixers. They appear to be more confident and have been able to work
the ball inside to Okur and Kirilenko. Veterans Gordan Giricek and Harpring
have been able to knock down the outside jumper, which has also helped to open
up the low post for Utah’s big men.

“I think we do believe in the offense now,” said Sloan. “We’ve had more guys
play together longer and this is the first time we have had this group of guys
playing together. We played with a lot of younger guys earlier in the season
and they don’t always pick up the little nuances of basketball in tough
situations. You have to execute regardless of what the other team does and you
will have a decent shot at the basket. We don’t have a one-on-one guy with the
ball so we have to play that way.”

With Kirilenko and Okur playing at the top of their games, rookie point guard
Deron Williams, who is averaging 10.7 points and a team-best 4.5 assists,
improving as he gains more experience and Palacio and Harpring contributing
off the bench, the Jazz are starting to look like a team that is ready to
return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2002-03 season.