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SALT LAKE CITY - In order to get to the top of the Western Conference teams have to go through the two powerhouses over the past decade: the Lakers and the Spurs.
These also happen to be the two of the teams the Jazz have struggled with the most, but as the season moves along victories over these two teams have defined the Jazz's early season and shown what the Jazz can become.
Over the last five games the Jazz have found a new identity that has improved their game. The start of the run was the heart breaking loss to the Clippers that put them below .500. Then the Jazz changed, they barely beat the Magic and lost Al Jefferson.
The team came together and routed the Raptors in 131-99 win with 13 3-pointers and the Jazz making the extra pass to find the open man. This began the change and in the two defining wins it has continued.
"I really liked the way the ball was moving on the offensive end," Jefferson said. "It started in the Toronto game, the game I missed. I watched them move that ball around got guys open shots. I said to myself, 'when I come back I want to keep it like that.' So far so good, we're keeping that ball moving."
The ball movement has changed quite a bit in the past two weeks. It doesn't show up quite as much in the assists category, they are up 2.5 per game, but it is visible in the shooting percentage. The team is getting open looks and they are shooting 50 percent in their last five up from their season average of 45 percent. Their 3-point shooting has gone up to 41 percent also.
I think Paul has been the MVP of the last five or six games. He's been carrying us on his shoulder. Leading us on the offensive end.
But have the Jazz found out who they really are or is this a blip on the radar. The Lakers are a down team, but beating the Lakers on the road is never easy. The Spurs are always a challenge, but the Jazz met it head on. Coach Tyrone Corbin thinks the team is starting to discover who they really are.
"I think we're getting closer," Corbin said. "We're getting closer. We're understanding who we are a little bit more and we're understanding how we have to play to be effective. How we have to count on each other and stay together. And the guys are doing it."
The key to having a team without superstars win is having the team win. Against Toronto eight players scored in double-figures, six against the Lakers and four against the Spurs. The team leans on Jefferson in tough times, but over the past few days the teams identity has come from the other big, Paul Millsap.
"I think Paul has been the MVP of the last five or six games," Jefferson said. "He's been carrying us on his shoulder. Leading us on the offensive end. I'm happy at this point we just got to continue to keep building on it and get better."
In the four game winning streak Millsap has been scoring 22.5 points per game, grabbing just under 9 rebounds and has 3.8 assists. He has been more involved on offense taking almost five more shots per game than his average, but with the ball movement his percentage is up to 54.
His play against the Spurs might be forgotten after the game-winner by Mo Williams, but he was the player that grabbed the offensive rebound after the miss seconds earlier to give the Jazz the last chance.
These are the games that the Jazz have lost in the past. Even a week earlier against the Clippers, they saw the game slip away and couldn't change it. Against the Lakers they got a lead and kept battling. Against the Spurs they took destiny in their hands and made the shot. The team is learning, and according to Millsap that has come from losing those earlier games.
"We're a smart basketball team," Millsap said. "I takes a few times to fall for you to understand why you fell. For us we lost a few games, lost a few tough games, and we kind of realized why. What it was that we didn't do to win those games. Now we're doing it, we're putting into play and we're succeeding off of it."
There are any number of factors that have changed in the last four games. DeMarre Carroll and Earl Watson have pressured the court to force turnovers. Gordon Hayward, Millsap and Jefferson are combining for 10.6 assists per game, they averaged 7.
The team has an assist to turnover differential of 2.1, up from their average of 1.6. A lot of these things don't show up on the stat sheet, take Carroll for example.
He had 0 points, 1 rebound in 16 minutes of play, but he played very well. He came in and pressured Manu Ginobili who had 3 points in the 10 minutes he guarded him.
Lakers on the road and the Spurs at home, Millsap said it was a great week. Jazz fans would agree. But, if the Jazz can carry this identity these will be the games at the end of the year that fans can look back at as the turning points for a great season.