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Utah Jazz: Team looks to make new start in the new year

SALT LAKE CITY — Since 2000, they've made it to the postseason seven times, but advanced out of the first round just three times and into the Western Conference Finals — in 2007 — only once.

With the aughts all for naught then, at least when it comes to the Jazz's never-ending quest for an NBA championship, and 2009 now transitioned into 2010, Jerry Sloan doesn't know what to make of his current 18-14 club.

Is it capable, Sloan was asked prior to Thursday night's New Year's Eve loss at Oklahoma City, of making a deep playoff run?

"Only time can tell," the Jazz coach said, "whether or not we're tough enough to be able to do it."

Time, and circumstance.

With Northwest Division-leader Denver in town tonight for the start of a three-game homestand, Sloan suggested the Jazz still are reeling from preseason/early season injuries to starting small forward C.J. Miles (thumb surgery), reserve combo guard Ronnie Price (foot/toe injury) and former backup shooting guard Kyle Korver (arthroscopic knee surgery).

"We've got guys that have been out trying to find their way back (namely Miles and backup point Price), guys that were playing trying to fight back in and see where they are (including rookie Wesley Matthews, who lost his starting job shortly after Miles returned)," he said.

"That's normal," Sloan added. "It's normal for teams to have those sorts of things happen to them."

How the bumps are traversed, however, separates ordinary from potentially special.

"It's one thing to have injuries, but it's another to be able to try to survive it," Sloan said. "Then, when you get your players back, it's kind of tougher to play than it was when you had them out."

With that in mind, the Jazz head into a game against hurting Denver hoping to make up some lost ground.

Utah has won 14 of its last 22 games, and hasn't lost more than two straight so far this season.

But the Jazz also have lost three of their last five going into tonight's meeting with the 20-12 Nuggets, who have dropped three straight and five of their last six games — all five with starting point guard Chauncey Billups sidelined by a groin strain.

The well-rested Nuggets — idle most of the week — are calling Billups "questionable" and star Carmelo Anthony "probable" with a bruised right knee sustained in their last outing, Monday's loss at Sacramento.

Sloan, meanwhile, is calling his team something of a mystery.

"We're still trying to find out who we are, what we are," he said. "If you look back, we let games slip away from us" — arguably including two losses to Northwest cellar-dweller Minnesota, and a home loss late in November to Oklahoma City — "we thought we should have been able to win, and hopefully we learned something from it to try to make us better.

"I think there's a couple, three games we might have been able to win if we had our team together at the beginning of the (season)," he added. "But you can't do anything about that. That's wishful thinking."

So too, perhaps, is the Jazz being able to become what Sloan suggested — after Thursday's one-point road loss to the Thunder — what he really wants them to be.

That would be a much meaner, more physical and mentally stronger team with players who are "gonna compete, rather than worry about getting bumped or touched out there sometimes."

"If we're gonna play and be a factor in the race, you've got to compete," Sloan said. "You can't just go out there and play in a tuxedo."

Not even on New Year's Eve, evidenced by what happened in Oklahoma City.

And certainly not at the start of a new decade, especially if the one to come is to offer any more than the one that just was.