ATLANTA — Point guards bailing out early on the offense. A loose ball on the floor, and no one in a hurry to go after it. No energy, no focus, little will to win.

Jerry Sloan saw a lot he did not like Saturday night.

He also saw the Jazz beat Atlanta 87-81 for their second straight victory and their third in a now-concluded stretch of five in a row on the road.

As a result, Utah has moved into a tie with Denver at 36-34 — though the idle Nuggets still hold rights to the eighth and last playoff position in the NBA's Western Conference, since they are up 3-0 in the four-game season series between the two postseason hopefuls.

The win and its implications, however, seemed to matter little to a coach who expected so much more against a 22-48 Hawks club with little motivation beyond personal pride.

"I didn't know if we were gonna get enough energy to look like we knew what we were doing to play the game," said Sloan, whose Jazz arrived in Atlanta following a 97-88 win at Cleveland one night earlier.

"We play the game (Friday) night and have good focus on what we're trying to do from the start to finish," he added. "(Saturday night), we didn't have the focus at all to know what we were doing on so many possessions. I mean, it was just a hodgepodge."

Hodgepodge in an opening half the Jazz led by just three, 47-44. Hodgepodge in a third quarter they lost 23-17. Hodgepodge in failing to score on four of their first five possessions of the fourth quarter.

A team vying for a place in the postseason?

Hogwash, Sloan suggested after seeing more hodgepodge than even a farmer from Illinois could handle.

"I just was disappointed in the way we came out," he said, "and our concentration wasn't there to do the right thing — both ends of the floor — so many times.

"One time the ball was laying loose down there. We had three guys that have a chance at it, and we run away from it," Sloan added. "I mean, I don't understand that. If you think you want to be a playoff team, (you don't) let things like that happen, do you?

"If you're gonna be tough enough to play at another level — in the playoffs, if you get there — then this is the time you have to understand (that)."

Which is basically the same message Sloan delivered the first time he had a chance.

"Coach," big man Mikki Moore said, "kind of got into us at halftime, telling us we need to be ready."

The result, eventually?

"Guys got ready," Moore said. "Had to get ready. I wish I could have showed them I was ready."

Utah was down by seven, 72-65, when with nine minutes and 18 seconds remaining Sloan replaced scoreless-in-four-minutes Moore with All-Star forward Andrei Kirilenko.

The Jazz went on an 8-0 run over the next 2:37, getting a 16-foot jumper from swingman Raja Bell, a nifty reverse layup from driving point Raul Lopez, a steal and ensuing fastbreak layup from Kirilenko, who matched Bell for team-high scoring honors with 18, and a high-arcing jumper from the free-throw line by rookie reserve Sasha Pavlovic.

After Atlanta guard Bob Sura answered Pavlovic with two free throws, Russian-born Kirilenko combined with Spainard Lopez for what had to be the play of the game.

Kirilenko delivered an alley-oop style pass to Lopez, who one-timed a layup — no dunk, just a little jump — that made it 75-74 Jazz with 6:11 left.

"That's how we do it in Europe," Kirilenko said of the forward-to-guard reverse roles.

Pavlovic — another European, from Serbia & Montenegro — followed 19 seconds later with a fastbreak dunk, American-style, and the Jazz led the rest of the way.

"Utah is in the playoff hunt," Atlanta guard Jason Terry said, "and they wanted it a little bit more."

Not that Sloan was very impressed with how the Jazz showed it.

"I compliment them a little bit (Friday night), thinking that we had a little bit of a step forward," he said. "And then we take two steps back."

With the race Utah is in, that's not a good cadence. Even if there did happen to be a win amidst all the missteps.

"We have 12 more games, and we need to be able to concentrate — because (Saturday night's) game shows there are no weak teams in the NBA," said Kirilenko, looking ahead to a return to the Delta Center for Tuesday night's meeting with woeful Washington (22-46).

"Everybody can play good basketball," he added, "and everybody can beat us — especially with a team that is right now out the playoff picture."

That's a message, too — one that suspiciously sounds hammered home by a man named Sloan.


E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com