BOSTON -- "I call them 'meaningful games,' " said Kevin O'Connor, the general manager of the Utah Jazz. "This is a meaningful game tonight."
His team was exceeding expectations even as it remained under construction. A year after their surprisingly successful trade of Deron Williams, the Jazz were 27-23 and contending for the Western Conference playoffs as they prepared to meet the Celtics. The reason the young Jazz were rising was the same reason the elderly Celtics were in decline. It all came down to size. Utah had what Boston lacked.
The Celtics would prevail 94-82 on Wednesday because 6-foot-1 point guard Rajon Rondo (14 assists) was the most dynamic player on the floor, and because Kevin Garnett, at 35, continues to feel as if he has to prove himself against Al Jefferson, for whom he was traded to Boston almost five years ago.
Garnett should thank him every time they meet, because if it weren't for Jefferson then Garnett never could have won a championship in 2008. Instead, they bickered and bodied as they usually do, with double technicals handed out all around, and Jefferson went home yet again without a win. Whether playing for Minnesota or Utah, he has never beaten Garnett since the 2007 trade.
"I might not like him," Jefferson said, "but I respect him."
The respect is reflected back upon Jefferson and his teammates, because the Jazz are trending up. In a league starved for big men, Utah has four that any NBA team would want, and none is older than 27. Jefferson, the 6-10 center, is among the league's half-dozen best post-up scorers. Paul Millsap, the versatile 6-8 power forward, is approaching All-Star status by improving and expanding his game year after year. Derrick Favors (the 6-10, 246-pound power forward in his second year) and rookie center Enes Kanter (6-11, 262) enable the Jazz to play bigger off the bench, which is an outright luxury in this size-challenged era. "And they can play," coach Tyrone Corbin said.
In other cities, the backup roles of 20-year-old Favors (20.2 minutes per game) and 19-year-old Kanter (13.6 minutes) would be second-guessed. Because they represent the future, shouldn't they be playing more in the present? But the Jazz take a traditional view of their old-school roster.
"I'm for teaching them how to win first, and then developing their skills along with that," O'Connor said. "People say, 'Why aren't you playing the young kids?' If they help us win, then we'll play them."
They're helping, by forcing opposing coaches to keep their starters in longer in order to deal with Utah's relentless rotations of size. In the meantime, they're also watching how Jefferson continues to improve his skills as a passer while the hard-working Millsap adapts to whatever his team needs. It can only be helpful that Favors and Kanter are earning their minutes and playing in a constructive role as the 27-24 Jazz -- currently in a three-way tie for the No. 7 seed in the West -- race toward the playoffs.
Jazz insiders call this their hardest-working team since the days of Karl Malone and John Stockton. Corbin is encouraging Favors to not only run hard every time up the floor to force opponents to get back defensively (and give up their pursuit of offensive rebounds) and create opportunities for himself and teammates, but also to develop the dull yet crucial low-post footwork that could enable him to dominate athletically in the open floor as well as technically in the half court.
"Al makes the game look easy," Favors said of Jefferson's back-to-the-basket moves. "The way he does it makes you think you can do it, but it's not as easy as he makes it look."
This is Jefferson's eighth season since he joined the Celtics out of high school, and he's only just now comfortable reading the defenses and passing out of double teams. In addition to his typical 19.3 points and 9.4 rebounds, he's averaging a career-best 2.2 assists and a six-year-low 1.2 turnovers.
After spending much of his career with Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer, Millsap has become more of a face-up player to complement Jefferson's play on the block. Since joining the Jazz as a late second-round pick in 2006, he has steadily transformed himself to become a go-to starter. He's averaging 16.2 points and shooting 50 percent to go with his career-best 8.9 rebounds and team-leading 1.8 steals.
"That's what happens when you get up at 5 in the morning every day," he said of his summer-long workouts: In the weight room by 6 a.m. and then onto the gym by 9 a.m. for shooting and drills.
Kanter, who is the biggest of Utah's bigs, has deep shooting range. He didn't play last season as a freshman for Kentucky because the NCAA ruled he had essentially turned pro by playing for Fenerbahce Ulker in his native Turkey in 2008-09. A year away from the game didn't lessen his natural aggression. While working out for the Jazz last spring in Chicago before the draft, he played one-on-one against Corbin, who was a 6-6 swingman in the NBA from 1985-2001. Corbin tried to draw a charge and was flattened by Kanter.
"I knocked him down," Kanter recalled with a big grin. "I didn't know he was the head coach. My agent told me after he was the head coach. I said to him, 'I'm sorry. I didn't know you were the head coach.' "
Corbin told Kanter he liked the physical style. "I also told him it was a foul," Corbin said.
The Jazz are top-heavy, but over the next year they should be able to fill their needs on the perimeter. In 2013, Millsap, Jefferson and point guard Devin Harris will be free agents, which may encourage O'Connor -- pending the development of Favors and Kanter -- to trade at least one of his expiring big men for a younger point guard. The Jazz also possess a large trade exception (via Mehmet Okur's move to New Jersey) and a variety of possibilities in the draft. If they miss the playoffs, they get to keep their own first-rounder in June (which would go to Minnesota otherwise); they also own Golden State's pick, which they'll use this year so long as it's No. 8 or worse after the lottery.
Until then, they'll continue to play like a team of an earlier era, pounding the ball inside relentlessly to create layups or double teams. It makes for a nice story around Corbin, who played in the early 1980s at DePaul for coach Ray Meyer. It was Meyer in the 1940s who persuaded George Mikan to jump rope, punch a speed bag and learn to dance in order to develop his skills as basketball's original big man. Back then, when Mikan was derided as a hopeless giant, no one would have guessed that over the next 70 years the trend of big men dominating around the basket would peak and then diminish, and that the last of Meyer's players would be charged with extending the story and keeping it alive.
Tyrone Corbin, with one degree of separation, is straddling the biggest story in basketball.