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Jazz look to stop free fall against Denver

With the Jazz in a free fall that could soon drop them right out of the NBA's Western Conference playoff picture, theories abound as to what's gone wrong.

Jerry Sloan has a couple, and both may go a long way toward explaining why the Jazz have botched four of their last six games.

That span of despair includes losses to two teams, Cleveland on Sunday and Indiana on Friday, that not only beat Utah handily but also snapped losing streaks of seven and six games, respectively.

It was after the loss to the Cavaliers, at the end of a five-game trip, that Sloan addressed both bench play and something that sounds suspiciously like soft play.

The Jazz coach was talking chiefly about the loss to Cavaliers on Sunday, but it sure seemed like he could have been speaking about any of the Jazz's recent losses.

First, the bench.

"It looks like we were gonna execute and get some decent shots — and then we started substituting a little bit," Sloan said.

At halftime Sunday, the Jazz's five subs who got into the game before the break — Mark Jackson, Andrei Kirilenko, John Amaechi, Scott Padgett and DeShawn Stevenson — had made a combined 1-of-13 shots from the field.

Sloan — whose club returns to the Delta Center tonight to face the also-struggling Denver Nuggets, losers of 16 of their 18 games — blamed the offensive woes largely on "shooting the ball lazy."

That, of course, leads to all sorts of trouble on the defensive end as well.

"We just had a terrible time with our second group trying to run anything. They don't have confidence in our offense any more," Sloan said. "And when they lose confidence, and try to do it on their own, you're not gonna win."

Unfortunately for the 37-29 Jazz — who have slipped to seventh place in the Western Conference standings and are only two games ahead of Phoenix, which is ninth and one position out of a playoff berth — the search to rediscover that absent confidence is not going real well.

"Until they come back . . . and figure out they've got to play in an offense," Sloan said, "then we're not gonna win."

Asked specifically if he thought "confidence in the offense," as Sloan suggested, indeed is a problem, the point guard of Utah's second team did not answer directly: "We're struggling as a team," Jackson said.

Stevenson, meanwhile, did not want to answer for the so-called "second unit," but he did offer some telling insight into the Jazz's current state of mind.

"I think a lot of people (are) negative right now," the reserve shooting guard said, "and people need to be positive."

As for the suggestion of softness, Sloan didn't exactly hold back much while he was discussing the Jazz's recent penchant for shying away from setting solid, physically imposing picks — the sort so integral to Utah's offense.

"We just can't screen people right now," he said. "It looked like we're afraid we're gonna get bumped, and when you play afraid, then you play about a half-a-step off.

"When we don't set screens," Sloan added, "we don't get any layups."

And when the Jazz don't get enough layups — one sure sign of executing the offense the way it's drawn up — they do not exactly earn their coach's respect.

"Until we learn some of those of things," Sloan said, "it will be a long, tough finish."

And one awfully hard fall.