Facebook Twitter

FOR JAZZ, THINGS COULD BE BETTER, BUT THEN AGAIN, THEY COULD BE A WHOLE LOT WORSE

SHARE FOR JAZZ, THINGS COULD BE BETTER, BUT THEN AGAIN, THEY COULD BE A WHOLE LOT WORSE

The Utah Jazz quietly passed the midway point in the season this week, churning steadily ahead. They're leading the Midwest Division. Nobody is on the injured list. They aren't at one another's throats.

They're one game behind where they were at this time last season, thanks in part to a heavy road schedule the first half of the year. Things could be better, but they could also be a whole lot worse. Ask the Seattle SuperSonics. Tonight at Seattle Center Coliseum (8 o'clock, MST), the Jazz and Sonics meet in a Western Conference game.The Sonics, sputtering along with a 20-21 record record, are finding their feet after firing Coach K.C. Jones and hiring George Karl. Karl will be coaching his second game for the Sonics, following a Thursday loss to Portland.

As for the Jazz, their fortunes seem to be good, even considering their Thursday loss to Denver. Offensive rebounding, scoring and three-point percentage were all up after 41 games (over last season's final stats).

And, of course, there is the Jazz's 17-1 record at the Delta Center - the best home record in the NBA.

"Obviously we've been excellent at home," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "We've had a tough road schedule the first half."

While acknowleding the Jazz's dominance at home, Sloan admits the team's biggest problem remains losing road games.

"That's the thing that concerns me most is our ability to win on the road," he said. "We've competed hard, but have not had the wins. In the overall picture, that's where we have to get the job done."

In upcoming weeks, that shouldn't be such a big order. Following tonight's game at Seattle, the Jazz play only four road games in February, including games at Dallas, Sacramento, Portland and the Clippers.

Here is a look at other key areas in Sloan's mid-season State of the Team address:

Rebounding: Long a sore spot with the Jazz, things are gradually improving. The Jazz averaged 40.7 rebounds a game last year, but are averaging 44.6 a game so far this year. More significantly, they are out-rebounding opponents by 21/2 a game this season.

The Jazz are also averaging about three offensive rebounds a game more than they did last year.

Much credit in that area belongs to Mike Brown and Tyrone Corbin, who have come off the bench to register impressive numbers regularly.

Defense: Sloan contends the Jazz play themsleves in and out of games with their defense. A case in point was the Jan. 16 game against Atlanta. They gave up 64 points in the first half, then clamped down the second half and came away with a 116-111 win.

Then there was the Denver game on Thursday, when they allowed 39 second-quarter points. "You get a little tired, defense is the first thing that suffers," said Sloan.

Overall, the Jazz aren't faring as well defensively as they did a year ago. Opponents are scoring 102.6 points a game. Last year Jazz opponents averaged just 100.7 a game.

However, the Jazz are scoring more points per game than a year ago.

Bench: This is among the most notable improvements from last season. Brown, Corbin, Delaney Rudd and David Benoit are regular contributors. Brown and Corbin average six rebounds and over 20 minutes playing time each. Benoit averages almost 15 minutes a game (5.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Rudd is averaging 10 minutes and 3.8 points a game.

"They've all been good," said Sloan.

By comparison, last year's top four reserves were Thurl Bailey, Darrell Griffith, Rudd and Brown. Though both years the top four reserves averaged 6.7 points a game, this bench combination is playing more effectively and producing better numbers overall.

Where Bailey carried most of last season's bench scoring, it is more evenly distributed this time around. Benoit (5.3 ppg), Rudd (3.9 ppg), Brown (8.1 ppg) and Corbin (9.6 ppg) are making the Jazz a harder team to defend.

Schedule: The Jazz have played 24 road games so far, compared with 21 at this time last year.

At the halfway point, the Jazz were on a 52-win pace, compared to 54 wins last year.

So how are the Jazz doing? Asking the schoolmaster doesn't help. Said Sloan, "I don't grade teams."

PREGAME NOTES: John Stockton continues to lead the NBA in three-point shooting and assists . . . Seattle forward Derrick McKey is out six weeks due to a thumb injury. Guard Nate McMillan has been out with a sore back but may be ready to play against the Jazz . . . The Sonics handed the Jazz their only Delta Center loss this year, a 103-95 verdict on Nov. 7.