BOSTON -- Deron Williams sat slumped in his locker, uniform still on, ice bags wrapped tightly around both knees. Splashed across his face was the bewildered look of a man who recognizes a problem yet couldn't quite pinpoint how to fix it. Friday night's 110-86 loss to the Celtics was Utah's third straight, one that followed back-to-back defeats to the woeful Wizards and Nets.
"I don't even have much to say," Williams said. "It's been rough all season. And it's getting worse."
Gone, it seems, is the memory of the Jazz's early success, back when they were the NBA's Cardiac Kids, a team that specialized in storming back from big deficits. That team fell behind the Lakers, Heat and Magic by at least 18 and still found ways to win. This team? They still fall behind, only now they lack the energy or enthusiasm to catch up.
"We haven't shown a lot of desire to get out and get after people and blocking people off the boards or running people off the floor," said Jerry Sloan. "[Boston] got rebounds tonight when it looked like we didn't have any interest in it. Tough to win that way."
Indeed, Utah's lack of effort in recent days has been particularly troubling to Sloan, the NBA's longest tenured coach.
"We need everyone to come and play hard," Sloan said. "That takes care of a lot of sins. If you don't come and play hard and you get caught in situations where you're not sure what is going on and your mind drifts a little bit, you're in trouble. Ours has been drifting a little bit, for the last ten games."
That could be it, sure. Maybe all Utah need is a little soul searching, something to sharpen its focus. They are certainly talented. Williams is in the rarified air of great point guards, a perfect blend of size, strength and skill that comes along only a handful of times in a generation. Al Jefferson (16.9 points/game) has been a consistent low post threat while Paul Millsap (17.2 points) has ably replaced the departed Carlos Boozer in the starting lineup.
But there are flaws there, too, ones that have been exposed in recent weeks. The Jazz have replaced Boozer's production, but still lack the overall consistency he brought last season. Utah is the second-highest scoring team in the league in the fourth quarter (26.8 points) but the second lowest in the first (23.0). They replaced Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer with Raja Bell and first-round pick Gordon Hayward while jacking up Andrei Kirilenko's minutes. And they are still working in Mehmet Okur, who returned to the lineup last month for the first time since tearing his Achilles' tendon in the 2010 playoffs.
"The bench isn't as strong as it was in the past," said an NBA personnel scout. "They don't have anyone to fill Millsap's role and Raja just isn't as good as Korver or Brewer."
The Jazz do have the flexibility to upgrade. They have expiring contracts in Ronnie Price, Earl Watson and Francisco Elson and along with Kirilenko's whopping $17.8 million salary that runs out at the end of the season. But multiple executives from opposing teams say Utah hasn't been aggressively pursuing deals, even with a big chip like Kirilenko to play.
It would behoove the Jazz to take a proactive posture, if for no other reason than to satisfy Williams' desire to win. Williams is expected to be a part of the ballyhooed free-agent class of 2012, joining Chris Paul and Dwight Howard on the open market. Williams has never made any trade demands, never indicated he was unhappy with the team. But with bigger markets beckoning and the idea of creating super teams suddenly en vogue, aggressively acquiring talent might be the only way smaller market teams can compete.
That's all Williams wants, really. The stress of Utah's inconsistent season has clearly taken its toll. In the first quarter he barked at Jefferson when Jefferson botched a play. In the third quarter Williams wrapped up Kevin Garnett in the paint, picking up a crucial fourth foul. He looked over at the bench, arms extended wide, visible frustration on his face. When a reporter asked Williams if a lineup change could help, Williams remarked, "it's never been one of [Sloan's] characteristics to change anything." When asked if he thought it would help, Williams shrugged and deadpanned, "It is what it is."
When the interview ended, Williams retreated back into his locker, the perplexed look returning to his face. The problems are right in front of him, the solutions seemingly so far away.