Jazz prove ‘no lead is safe’ isn’t just a cliche

As the Utah Jazz wiped out one big deficit after another during
their remarkable road trip, a couple of NBA truths were proven
again.

No lead is safe, especially against a team that plays as hard as
the Jazz.

”I think it’s another testament to the team that over the years
has been the most mentally tough in the league,” Spurs coach Gregg
Popovich said. ”Year in and year out, their mental and physical
toughness is a standard that we’ve always tried to approach.”

Popovich and other coaches were impressed, but not completely
stunned by Utah’s collection of comebacks. ”Every team makes a
run” may be an overused line in the league, but it’s not just a
cliche. To some, it’s simple math.

”The reason it’s a game of runs is because normally a team will
come out and maybe shoot 60 percent for the first 5 minutes or 10
minutes, or maybe for a half,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said.
”You shoot 60 percent and the next half, statistically you’ll
probably be in the 20s or 30s because it’s going to average out to
about 45. And the other team probably shot in the 30s, now they’re
up to 60. It just happens.”

Still, even Popovich was a little surprised by the Jazz coming
back from 22 points down in Miami and 18 the next night in Orlando.
One of the victims wasn’t.

”It’s a 48-minute game, and over 48 minutes I don’t think it’s
surprising that a team with Deron Williams, Paul Millsap, Al
Jefferson and Andrei Kirilenko can win games. I don’t think that’s
surprising,” Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said.

”I think what’s surprising is they can be down 18, be down 20,
be down 12. So they’re getting a lot of credit for the comebacks
they deserve, but the game’s 48 minutes and over 48 minutes, again,
they should win some close games and they’ve done a hell of a
job.”

The back-to-back wins in Florida were only part of the story.
The streak began at home on Nov. 6, when the Jazz erased an
18-point deficit before beating the Los Angeles Clippers in two
overtimes.

Then came an overtime victory over powerful Miami, when Millsap
scored 46 points to bring Utah back. After beating Orlando, the
Jazz rallied from 11 points behind in the fourth quarter at Atlanta
before wrapping up the trip by storming back from a 16-point
halftime deficit Saturday at Charlotte.

Utah plays at home Monday night against the Oklahoma City
Thunder, who know they can’t let up if they get ahead of Jerry
Sloan’s team.

”How can he have not ever had the Coach of the Year?” Thunder
coach Scott Brooks said. ”It’s the toughness. He doesn’t let his
team quit. They just keep playing. They’re not going to win all of
the games, but they’re going to play hard in all of the
games.”

The Jazz are not the only ones who’ve gone down but refused to
stay there.

Already this season, there have been 10 games a team lost after
leading by 15 or more points, according to STATS LLC. It happened
on the first night of the season, when the Houston Rockets could
have spoiled the Los Angeles Lakers’ ring ceremony but couldn’t
protect a 15-point, third-quarter advantage.

”When you’re down, you’re playing with house money. The shot’s
a lot freer and when you’re up, you’re trying to protect that
lead,” Houston forward Shane Battier said. ”It’s so tough to get
a lead in this league. So combination of confidence when you’re
down and you make a few, and the tightening of the, let me put this
nicely, the tightening of the buttocks when you start to feel that
lead slip away.”

D’Antoni’s team coughed up a 21-point lead Friday at Minnesota,
when Kevin Love’s 31-point, 31-rebound performance rallied the
Timberwolves. D’Antoni said part of the Knicks’ problem is they
play a fast tempo, taking quick shots – which Love rebounded most
of – and giving the opponent plenty of turns with the ball.

But even a team that plays a deliberate pace can’t just sit on
its big cushion.

”In the NBA, you can’t hold the ball and run the clock out.
You’ve got to shoot it within 24 seconds, so there’s a lot more
possessions,” Brooks said. ”All it takes is five or six stops and
four or five scores in those same stops and you’re back in the
ballgame. And then you’re just playing from there on out.”

And a lull doesn’t have to be long.

”Whenever you play teams like the Orlandos or the Bostons or
the Lakers or the Spurs of the world, you can’t play half a game.
You can’t have 3-5 minutes of bad basketball, where you’re turning
the ball over or you’re missing your defensive assignments,” Nets
coach Avery Johnson said. ”These type of teams, they make you pay
for those situations. Maybe some of the other teams, you can get
away with it.”

Certainly not against the Jazz.

”Jerry Sloan, he’s tough and they don’t give up. They don’t
quit,” Brooks said. ”That’s crazy what they did.”

AP Sports Writer Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City contributed to
this report.