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Jazz not likely to turn this tide

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Sunrise, sunset. sunrise, sunset. Day giving way to velvet night. Season changing to season. Years passing as a dream.

Sorry.

I got carried away thinking about life's fleeting nature and how quickly things change. Like, for instance, the Utah Jazz. That old familiar lineup? We hardly knew ye.

And who are these nameless travelers from faraway lands?

Sorry again. I promise. No more attempts at literature. It's just that I'm so busy remembering the past, I hardly recognize the present.

The future? You don't want to know.

Late in Wednesday's game, the Jazz lineup consisted of John Crotty, Jarron Collins, Scott Padgett, John Stockton and Karl Malone. Forty percent of that group is going into the Hall of Fame. Sixty percent might be playing in Europe next year. Not long ago, even casual fans could recite the starting lineup by heart and recount the substitution pattern by rote. Nowadays, let's put it this way: This might be a good time to buy a program.

The Jazz marked the midway point of the season with a 98-92 loss to San Antonio. It was a laudable effort, nonetheless. Trailing by 16 points in the fourth quarter, they drew within two with less than a minute remaining. But it wasn't enough. Steve Smith's free throws moved the lead to four. When John Stockton's running shot rimmed out, it was over. The second half of the season had begun the same way as the first — with a loss.

Jerry Sloan left the building shaking his head over his team's awful perimeter defense, its late-game execution and how it tended to, as he put it, "waller" through its offensive sets.

"You just have to keep working hard and not get your head down when (opponents) do good things," offered Stockton.

You just have to adjust to life in a 55-mph speed zone.

Given the age of the Jazz's marquee players and the decline of the team's fortunes, their 22-20 record is no surprise. No one thought the Jazz would contend for the Western Conference or even Midwest Division championship. Too many dreams gone bad.

But what is surprising is who is contributing and how much. A couple of years ago you could bet your retirement on who would be taking the shots and playing in the closing seconds. Who could have imagined, three months ago, the starting lineup would soon include DeShawn Stevenson, Andrei Kirilenko and Collins? And that the Jazz would rely heavily on John Crotty and Scott Padgett?

It seems like Jerry Sloan has been playing "Scrabble" on his lineup card again.

If there is hope in this mediocre season, it is that several players — who by all rights should have been learning slowly, glued to the bench or out of the league — are major contributors. Crotty, a proven veteran, has been more effective than ever in recent weeks. Collins, who beat long odds just to make the team, has been the team's best center. Stevenson continues to make notable strides in both patience and judgment. Padgett, by all indications a washout after two seasons, has coaxed his confidence back.

But the Jazz haven't progressed much in the most important area: wins. If the playoffs began Wednesday, they would be the sixth-best team in the West. For a franchise that has made the playoffs 18 straight seasons, it's a punch in the gut. Nobody wants to be compared to better days. But that's how it is. The crowd comes late and fails to fill the house, even for important games. It leaves early, jamming the exits before the final horn.

A team that once won seven straight over rival San Antonio has now lost eight straight to the same team. The Jazz are 1-8 against the five best teams in the West. Their most realistic objective is no longer to win a championship but to make the playoffs

Indeed, things have changed. They lose on a regular basis. Home is no longer a sanctuary. Young players are turning in some impressive games, but the total still doesn't add up.

"Those (young) guys are getting some good stats but that doesn't mean they are playing the defense or doing all they should," said assistant coach Phil Johnson. "We need to parlay all that into winning basketball games."

But can they turn this season around? Bring the Jazz back from the dead? Stave off the inevitable tumble?

That wouldn't be literature.

It would be fiction.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com