Jazz struggles to stay out of “cruise control”

By By Jason Peterson

By Jason Peterson

All the great championship teams in the NBA have the killer instinct. It is what often draws the line between being a good team and the next level up — a true contender.

Last year, San Antonio had it, despite several fierce attempts by the Phoenix Suns, the Utah Jazz and the Cleveland Cavs in the playoffs. All were good teams, just not great. They just didn’t have the killer instinct — yet.

Following Utah’s dismantling of a weak Sacramento Kings team on Monday night, some observers might jump to the conclusion that the Jazz, at 6-2, is reaching contender status once again.

Really good teams are always supposed to win the easy ones. The great teams build leads and then gives their opponent zero hope of getting back in the game.

Case in point: Utah jumped to a 15-point lead in the first quarter against the Grizzlies, saw it balloon up to 26 and then let Memphis get back within 10 points. The Jazz eventually got its act together again and won by 24.

Against Cleveland last Wednesday, Utah failed to distance itself from the Cavaliers in a roller coaster that saw the Jazz lead fluctuate between one and nine points throughout the game.

Jazz coach Jerry Sloan knows his team needs to find a way to stop relaxing and develop a knack for putting teams away early.

“It looked like we were on cruise control,” Sloan said after Monday’s victory. “It’s disappointing that you would finish the game off that way. I don’t think that’s the proper approach to make your team better.”

Jazz forward Carlos Boozer said he knows the team’s offense — which leads the league in scoring — is in good shape. The defense, he said, is what needs attention.

“If we’re going to be a good team, that’s what we have to do,” Boozer said. “We know that we can score — we have a lot of guys that can put the ball in the basket — but for us to be a good team, we have to play good defense.”

Consider the rest of this week a trial run for the Jazz. A daunting three-game Eastern Conference road swing begins tonight in Toronto against the Raptors.

Boozer will likely get a healthy dose of Defense 101, as he has the task of guarding Toronto’s Chris Bosh, a burgeoning All-Star in the East. A recent scouting report suggested other players take the ball right at Boozer because his interior defense is weak.

When Sloan was told of the report, he shrugged his shoulders and said that was old news.

“We know all that stuff (they say about us),” he said.

Ronnie Brewer, who climbed to second in the NBA in steals after collecting three more on Monday, knows the value of good defense.

“Defense makes our team run,” the second-year guard said. “When we’re defending well, we’re executing on offense, and that’s what we tried to do (Monday).”

Brewer will try his hand at guarding several shooters on Toronto’s squad, such as Anthony Parker, Joey Graham and surprising unknown Jamario Moon. Moon recently started his first game for the Raptors and is connecting on 47 percent of his shots.

Williams will also need to up his defense, as he is squaring off against the speedy T.J. Ford, who is averaging more than eight assists per contest.

“It’s going to be a good test for us,” Boozer said of the road trip, which will continue Friday and Saturday in Cleveland and Indiana. “Obviously, we still have a lot to work on, but you know, one step at a time.”

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