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Devin Harris adapting to Utah Jazz system has improved team

When Jazz point guard Devin Harris plays well, Utah has proven to be a tougher team. ing guard Nick Young (1) during NBA action in in Salt Lake City  Friday, Feb. 17, 2012.guard Nick Young (1) during NBA action in in Salt Lake City  Friday, Feb. 17, 2012.
When Jazz point guard Devin Harris plays well, Utah has proven to be a tougher team. ing guard Nick Young (1) during NBA action in in Salt Lake City Friday, Feb. 17, 2012.guard Nick Young (1) during NBA action in in Salt Lake City Friday, Feb. 17, 2012.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Gordon Hayward generally garner the lion's share of attention from media members in the Utah Jazz locker room.

But the quiet man who makes 'em go, and a guy who usually lets his game do most of his talking for him, is veteran point guard Devin Harris, whose resurgence in the second half of the regular season coincided with Utah's late push for the playoffs. Indeed, if you said as Harris goes, so go the Jazz, you wouldn't be wrong.

After the All-Star break in late-February, Harris raised virtually all of his statistical averages — some of them by a remarkable difference — across the board. His scoring average jumped by almost 5 points per game after the break, and he also raised his assists, rebounds, 3-point shooting and free throws by sizable margins, too.

There was a key stretch of 10 games from Feb. 6 to Feb. 26 when Harris really made his presence felt, and it's more than coincidence the Jazz went 7-3 over that stretch to nail down their postseason spot. Harris scored 20 or more points six times during that span, and the Jazz won five of those six games.

"It starts at the point," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said Saturday morning at Zions Bank Basketball Center, where the team practiced before leaving for San Antonio for today's playoff series-opener against the Spurs. "If you get great play from your point guard on both ends of the floor, you have a chance to succeed.

"He got comfortable, man, and we were able to put the ball in his hands more. He was able to push the ball in transition and get some easy baskets there. And defensively, he just took it upon himself to stay in front of guys and be more aggressive on the ball, and he's done a great job there, too."

Harris' 3-point shooting became a great weapon in Utah's offense late in the season — during that 10-game stretch, he went a combined 16-of-20 from beyond the arc in wins over Golden State, Dallas and Portland — and Harris also started taking the ball much harder to the basket than he'd been doing earlier in the season.

"It was bound to come," Harris said of his personal late-season resurgence, attributing it to being more aggressive and getting more of an opportunity to do his thing. "It probably came later than I wanted it to. It doesn't matter what turned it around, as long as the turnaround occurred.

"Guys got more aggressive on the perimeter and I think that helped us out a lot."

Jefferson, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, said it took Harris — acquired by Utah in February 2011 in the trade that sent Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets — awhile to adjust his style to the Jazz offense. And once he did that, Jefferson says it was Harris who definitely was the difference-maker for the Jazz down the stretch.

"I just think Devin finally put his game into this offense," Big Al said. "This is a different type of offense for a guy like Devin. When he came here, he's normally a free guy who we just set picks and get him the ball and he gets his shots. This offense is more of a system. I think he just had to learn how to combine the two, put his game into this offense, and that's what he's been doing lately.

"He's the reason, by him stepping up, that we had a chance to make the playoffs. Because when we've got guys double-teaming on the bigs, you've got to have somebody who can hit that outside shot and put pressure on their defense by penetrating. So if it wasn't for him stepping up and finding it the way he did, we probably wouldn't be here right now talking about the playoffs.

"I never panicked about him," Jefferson said. "I knew that Devin could play and I knew that Devin had his game, I just knew he had to find his way in this offense. I had to do the same, but lucky for me this offense is made for a big man. So it didn't take me as long as it took him, but he got it — better late than never."

BEWARE THE GIANT KILLERS: The Spurs were in a similar situation last year, the No. 1 seed facing a No. 8 seed, when they were shocked in the opening round of the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies.

That stunning upset a year ago will no doubt make the Spurs much hungrier — and much more wary of the eighth-seeded Jazz — in this matchup.

"I don't think it helps us," Harris said. "It's definitely in the back of their minds, what happened last year. It doesn't mean it can't be done again. But obviously, we've got to come out more aggressive than they are.

"It's happened to me before, being the No. 1 seed [and falling in the opening round, when he played for top-seeded Dallas in a 2007 loss to Golden State]. So it's definitely possible. I've seen it happen and I wouldn't put it past us, but obviously we've got to go out there and execute."

Jazz swingman Josh Howard was Harris' teammate on that Mavericks team that was stunned in the opening round by the Warriors.

"It's kind of frustrating and mind-boggling to come in and get beat in the first round like that," Howard said. "It kind of humbles you. It makes you realize that everybody puts their pants on the same way you do at the end of the day.

"They blew up the (Dallas) team after that and fired the coach as well.

"I've been on the other end of the stick before, the No. 1 seed playing the No. 8 seed, and I know it's possible," Howard said of springing an upset on the top-seeded Spurs. "That's all we need to do is go out there and think it's possible."

BIG AL BACKS HIS COACH: Jefferson said that, even though most preseason experts gave the Jazz little or no chance of having a successful season this year, Corbin never saw it that way.

"We believed in him from day one, because of how he believed in us, how he believed the team he had in training camp could be a playoff team," the Jazz center said. "Not only did he believe in us but he got us here. He helped lead us here. So there's nothing else to do but believe in him.

"He took a team that no one ever thought would even finish 10th in the West, let alone make the playoffs, and he got us here. So I believe in him because he took us to this level.

"He said we're a playoff team and it was up to us to do it, those were his exact words — we could be a playoff team but it was going to be up to us to do it. And that's what we did. ... It's a wonderful feeling, it's a great feeling to go against all odds and do something that nobody thought we could ever do with this team. " ?

NO SWEAT: Jefferson joked about how Corbin expends a lot of perspiration at all times — during practices, on the sidelines during games, and even during postgame media interviews, where the Jazz coach usually has beads of sweat across his forehead.

"He be messing up every one of those suits," Jefferson said about Corbin's natty game-day wardrobe. "We make him nervous. I know in the Phoenix game it was tied and Michael Redd got a three-point play, and I thought he was about to have a heart attack over there. I just looked over there and see how his face was shining.

"Coach always sweats, man. We could be up 20 and he still sweats."

FIRST PLAYOFF EXPERIENCE: Much has been made about how inexperienced many of the Jazz players are when it comes to the playoffs. But this is also Corbin's first postseason as a head coach.

"I've been through it as an assistant coach, I've been through it as a player," he said, "but this is my first time as a head coach going through it. So there will be some excitement for me, some anxiety now to make sure we cover everything.

"It's going to be the same group of guys from four games to seven games, and we had four games during the regular season to play against (the Spurs), so you think about covering everything and not wearing the guys out. And some of that, too, can add some anxiety to them. So I don't want to do that, but I want to make sure they're aware of everything we need to cover."