Dicou: Utah’s NBA squad is not easy to peg

By Natalie Dicou

I’m still trying to figure out the Utah Jazz. Usually by now, when March has come and gone, I feel like I’ve got a pretty firm grasp on how Jerry Sloan’s guys are going to fare in the postseason.

This year, I’ve got no clue. At times, I’ve been overjoyed by the Jazz’s performance (18-point win over Celtics in Boston on March 14). At other times, I’ve spat in disgust that I ever signed up for an NBA League Pass after being privy to the carnage known as Sunday’s 110-103 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

There are times when the Jazz seem unstoppable. Their starting lineup features two young players (Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer) who shouldn’t make any vacation plans for the next eight All-Star Breaks or so. They’ve also got two one-and-done All-Stars in Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur, not to mention one of the deepest benches in the league.

And yet they continue to lose inexplicable games when there is so much on the line.

The Western Conference playoff race is literally — well, not literally — a knife fight in a phone booth. The Jazz are three games out of first place and three games out of an all-expenses-paid trip to an early offseason. They’re still battling it out for home-court advantage, and for a team that’s 33-4 at EnergySolutions Arena and 16-22 elsewhere, the whereabouts of future game sevens are more than just a little bit important.

Yet with all that on the line, the Jazz still couldn’t find a way to get excited about Sunday’s game at Minnesota. Going into the game, Minnesota’s win total was still in the teens, but the Jazz inexplicably lost the game, and with it the chance to breathe down the necks of the conference leaders.

It was another example of the Jazz “playing down” to crummy competition — a strange phenomenon that Sloan has often attributed to the team’s youth.

But here’s the encouraging part: the Jazz also “play up” to good teams. So, unless those same Timberwolves somehow find their way into the Western Conference Playoffs, the Jazz’s future looks bright.

So, what can we make of a team that possesses the NBA’s best record at home but is six games under .500 on the road?

Actually, stellar home play and sub-par away play isn’t all that uncommon in the NBA.

The Mavericks, for example, are 30-7 at home and 16-21 on the road, and the Nuggets are 31-7 in Denver and 15-22 at non-mile-high altitudes.

Compare those teams with the consistency of the conference-leading New Orleans Hornets, who have home and away records that closely mirror each other. The Chris Paul-led overachievers are 27-10 at home and 24-12 on the road. Similarly, the Lakers are 25-11 when playing under the watchful eye of Jack Nicholson and 25-13 outside the Staples Center.

So, which is better? To be nearly unbeatable in front of your ever-supportive hometown fans while folding in front of hostile hecklers or to be consistently above average no matter where you play?

I guess we’ll find out come June.

Much can be said about the value of consistency. After all, the Hornets — if they manage to hold off the Spurs — have a solid chance of earning the West’s top seed.

But there’s something appealing about the quirkiness of the Jazz. When they step out onto the court in the house that Malone built, there is a steely resolve in their eyes and a confidence in their play that doesn’t exist elsewhere. When there’s energy in the air, the Jazz are one of the strongest teams around. But when the Jazz play a team with no hope of reaching the playoffs, a team whose fans are aloof until the fourth quarter, they simply can’t muster up the desire. It’s been a strange truth this season that the Jazz perform better against playoff teams than against the postseason-impaired.

I guess that’s what’s encouraging about the upcoming playoffs. Every game is loaded with intensity. And that’s just the way the Jazz like it.

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