On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2007 Gilbert Arenas hit a game-winner walking away against the Utah Jazz in Washington… barely looked to see if it went in. Tough shot against a tough player in Deron Williams.
Four years later, the consistency of the Utah franchise and a Jerry Sloan-led team continues to carry an air of toughness wherever they go. The Wizards franchise remains in vastly different territory, with a fan base yearning for something they’ve never really known, that same toughness and consistency Utah always conveys.
“This is going to be a great test because this is by far the most physical team that we’ve faced,” said Wizards coach Flip Saunders before this afternoon’s game. “The other teams we’ve faced, Orlando and Miami, they’re good teams and they’re good defensive teams, but they don’t have the physicality of what a Utah has, and they do a lot because they have such great talent — a LeBron James and Dwyane Wade can take the game over — this team has a guy in Deron Williams who can take the game over, and [Al] Jefferson can do some things inside, but they’re so much better as a whole, such a great offensive execution team.”
As much as Sloan exhumes the toughness of his team, his second great point guard, Williams, carries that message while on the court.
“He’s tough, hard-nosed. Offensively, he knows how to run a team, he’s aggressive. He’s one of those guards who will sneak up behind you, set a good screen,” Wizards backup big man Hilton Armstrong told me before the game.
A point guard who a big man has to watch out for in setting screens? A differentiator in this era of great NBA point leaders.
“You have to keep your head on a swivel with him on the floor,” Armstrong continued. “He’s knows how to pick an offense apart, he tries to find weaknesses of a team and tries to attack it — if somebody is mis-matched or if he sees somebody having a good night, he’ll go for them, try to run a play for them. He knows how to read the game.”
Much of the Wizards’ pre-game scouting report revolves around not walking the ball up the court, rather pushing the tempo against Utah. But more importantly, the Wizards’ coaches are asking their players to hit the tough interior of the Jazz first — a tall request when it’s the finesse Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Rashard Lewis going against Andrei Kirilenko, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson — and to limit Utah layups. Again, easier said than done against the Jazz.
But even greater than the physical test on his early holiday game will be the mental test a good team like Utah poses against a Wizards team thinking they are good at home. At 12-6, the Jazz are one of the top teams on the road in the NBA.
Mike Prada has a good piece on John Wall playing through injury on SB Nation today. Before the game, I asked Saunders about Wall playing despite not being 100-percent and the mental challenges he faces as he pushes past the tough experiences he has dealt with as of late … or that ‘rookie wall’.
“What you have to watch out for is, when your team is getting beat a little bit, you have the tendency to beat yourself up. More than anything else, with him, is trying to keep his positive attitude,” said Saunders about his rookie point guard. “He’s such a perfectionist that he wants to be perfect every play of every game. And sometimes that can get him down, even over the course of a game. But it’s something that’s going to make him great because he’s not going to satisfy with being second best.”
Utah is favored by five points.