Like Steve, I have an historical dislike for the Utah Jazz. I always respected the excellence of Jerry Sloan and the play of Stockton and Malone, and now I love the game of Andrei Kirilenko, but I still don't like this team. Old rivalries die hard. Because of this simmering dislike, I never follow the Jazz, and I missed their only game this week. This warmup will be based on instinct and current stats. Having looked at the recent statistics, though, I might as well throw instinct out the window, this is not the same Jazz team we have seen the past few years. Sure, they will execute flawlessly on offense, all of Sloan's team's do that. They will bump, reach and get physical on defense like every Sloan team. The difference is that this group seems to have the talent, skill and confidence to make those core values translate into wins.
The Jazz are leaning heavily on three starters and two bench players for their scoring. Boozer, Okur, Williams, Harpring and Fisher are all averaging double figures. Second year point guard Deron Williams appears to have found his game in his second year under Sloan, controlling the flow of the offense with 16.9 points and 8.5 assists per game. Carlos Boozer appears to have become a rebounding machine after being thought a disappointing signing when they first stole him from Cleveland in free agency. He is averaging 12.6 rebounds to go with his 21.1 points. As always, the Jazz seem to have a well balanced bench with lots of decent role players. Sloan appears to be playing 11 players so far this season. Prior to spraining his ankle, Kirilenko was already having an up and down season offensively, only scoring well twice this season. According to NBA.com, neither Kirilenko nor Gordon Giricek travelled with the team for tonight's game.
The key to this game appears to be keeping Carlos Boozer off the boards and under 20 points. The Jazz have one loss this season and it is the only time the other team won the rebounding battle and Boozer was "held" to 15 and 7. Wilcox/Collison and Petro/Fortson need to keep Boozer off the block and make things harder for him on the glass.
If Luke and the bigs can make Deron Williams work for his shot and keep him from getting into the lane it should limit his ability to control the offense. I am 100% certain that Gordon Chiesa has spent time this week working with the guards and bigs on pick and roll defense. Mehmet Okur is a shooter and will be deadly on the pick and pop, and Boozer can roll to the basket, or he can hit that midrange shot. If the Sonics give them the pick and roll then this game will look just like the Blazers game.
Rashard Lewis has been playing very well of late, and Utah has lost their best defender, the man who would likely have had the defensive assignment on Lewis. Sloan started the 6'7" rookie, Ronnie Brewer, on Tuesday, so Lewis should be the focus of the offense, particularly in the low post late in the game. Harpring can play the 2 or the 3, but Sloan appears to prefer to save his scoring for the bench. Okur is not the best interior defender, but his length will likely cause trouble for both Collison and Fortson. Petro needs to test him early and see if there is anything there. Wilcox is desperately needed, but has a tough enough task on defense to ask for more than fast break scoring against Boozer. The scoring load will likely fall on the big three of Lewis, Allen and new Sonics scoring phenom, Luke Ridnour. The starters appear very good at maintaining control of the ball with Okur being the weakest, but the bench has a higher turnover percentage and the Sonics need to take advantage of it.
The number one priority for the Sonics at BOTH ends of the floor will be to rebound, rebound and then rebound some more. Whoever controls the boards in this game will win. A lackluster performance against the Jazz ALWAYS results in a loss because of their excellent execution, but this year rebounding has been the key to their success. They have played strong team defense and have been good at forcing teams into guarded jump shots leading to lots of rebounds which they have been snatching and using to control the game completely. The Sonics need to repeat the excellent rebounding of the past few games and make sure that they control the pace, not the Jazz.