Young Jazz still trying to turn corner


VIDEO: Derrick Favors powers Jazz to close road win in Atlanta

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Moral victories will sustain you for only so long in the NBA.

Sooner or later, signs of growth and glimpses of what could be have to backed up with something much more substantial than just the hope of what’s to come.

The Utah Jazz are living that reality these days. They are a team loaded with intriguing young talent, a group still trying to find its way together as they chart a course from the lottery to the playoffs while still working to shore up deficiencies on the roster and in their make up.

They shocked us with their work to finish the 2014-15 season, going 15-9 during the stretch run after the All-Star break, suggesting that this season might bring a true breakout effort from coach Quin Snyder‘s crew with a nucleus of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and defensive menace Rudy Gobert anchoring the middle of an improved frontline.

But the road has been a bit tougher than expected early on this season, courtesy of a rugged early schedule and the offseason loss of point guard Dante Exum for the season with a torn ACL.

That’s what makes nights like Sunday, when they outlasted the Atlanta Hawks 97-96 at Philips Arena to finally score a road win after three straight losses on a four-game trip, so sweet.

All that potential in action, and with a result to match. It’s all you can ask for when you’re trying to turn a corner. The Jazz sit at 5-5 after their first 10 games with every intention of living up to their own hype.

“I feel like we are ahead of where we were last year,” Hayward said. “We’re in a good place. I know that’s seems like a strange thing to say after you lose three in a row. But two close games and then kind of drained on that last one. But we are moving in the right direction. We just have more experience, another year with [Snyder] and all of the experiences from the tough games we played last year. We’re learning how to win games and trying to figure out where you can succeed in this league.”

Learning how to win games like this one will only help the Jazz in their pursuit of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Sunday’s win over the Hawks was their first this season in games decided by five points or less (they were 0-3 previously).

They shot a season-high 51 percent (39-for-76), outrebounded the Hawks by seven and Favors, an Atlanta native, led five players in double figures. Gobert recorded his first double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 rebounds, to go along with his three assists, three blocks and two steals as the Jazz finally put together a complete game against an elite opponent.

A little good fortune never hurts, of course. All-Star forward Paul Millsap missed a wide-open 12-footer in the game’s final seconds that would have won the game for the Hawks.

The hard work to get to that point, though, was rooted in the preparation for moments exactly like this one, Favors insists. And that preparation has been years in the making for the most experienced members of this Jazz team, where a 24-year-old, six-year veteran like Favors qualifies as an elder statesman.

“Everybody is more comfortable with the roles and guys are going out there playing with more freedom, without looking over their shoulder every time they make a mistake and worrying about the coach taking you out and crazy stuff like that,” Favors said. “It’s experience, too. This is my sixth year. Gordon’s been here six years. Most everybody else is in their second or third year. There is so much you have to learn. We’ve been through it as individuals. But now we have to go through some things together, as a group. And that’s what makes you stronger.”

This Jazz team still has glaring issues, of course, namely its struggles at point guard. Raul Neto is the starter and Trey Burke, a prized lottery pick two years ago, is the backup and playing well in that role.

But with the game on the line in the final four minutes Sunday, the Jazz worked without either one of them on the floor. It’s a formula they have been using all season, going with Alec Burks, Rodney Hood and Hayward as the primary facilitators with games on the line.

It’s a dangerous way to play in a league where quality point guard play has never been more valuable. And when you’re a team attempting to make the leap from the lottery to the playoffs, it’s a potentially fatal flaw.

The Hawks played without their All-Star point guard Sunday night, Jeff Teague, who sat out with a sprained ankle. And they lost starting small forward and energy man Kent Bazemore when he turned his ankle with 2:20 to play.

But there’s no need to apologize for a little luck, not when every bit of it and every lesson learned along the way will be useful on this journey.

“It was very important. We were very close to winning the first two games of the road trip. We lost each game by a couple of possessions,” Gobert said of what the Jazz took away from these early lumps they’ve endured. “But we were able to win the game tonight. We want to make the playoffs, so we need to put some wins together.”

Playoff talk in November is just that, talk. And no amount of bluster, internal or otherwise, will fuel the Jazz the rest of the way.

“We know it was a trendy thing to talk about us expecting to be a playoff team and a team on the rise or this and that,” Favors said. “But I don’t think you can own any of that until you actually get there. So anybody talking about us turning a corner … we haven’t turned a corner until we make the playoffs.”