The Utah Jazz are among the NBA's elite - or at least knocking on the door of the neighbourhood reserved for the Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers and perhaps the Orlando Magic.
But they have only one elite player in Deron Williams, who personally ensured the Jazz stuffed it down the Toronto Raptors' throats last night in a 113-87 evisceration in front of 16,178 at the Air Canada Centre, who booed the home team early, often and justifiably.
Williams? The 6-foot-3, 207-pound point guard is every inch the calibre of NBA stars Chris Paul or Steve Nash and proved it in shredding Toronto for 18 points and 16 assists - his foot on the gas all night.
"We could not contain Deron Williams from the start of the game," Raptors head coach Jay Triano said. "He just goes where he wants to go, does what he wants to do."
He was doing it to a variety of defenders and defences, but initially to Raps guard Jose Calderon, who was ineffective against his Olympic rival.
"He got me in the first quarter, three times in a row," said Calderon, who finished with 10 points and three assists. "It was too easy [for him]it was kind of a straight line, so it was my fault. What are you going to do, it happens."
But after Williams, the Jazz (47-25) are more proletariat that Hollywood. Even Carlos Boozer, their next-best player, and Mehmet Okur, their starting centre, are former second-round picks. (The Jazz have six second-round picks on their roster, along with four undrafted free agents.)
Which is maybe why the biggest gap between the two clubs - one priming for a deep playoff run in the Western Conference and the other hoping to hang on to the eighth (and final) seed in the East - wasn't just the gift of Williams but the effort of those around him.
Following Williams's lead, Utah came to play last night, scrambling after the Raptors on the perimeter and swarming all-star forward Chris Bosh when he got the ball. Utah shot 49.4 per cent from the floor to Toronto's 40.2 per cent, and outrebounded the Raptors 52-38.
The Raptors (35-35), fighting for their playoff lives, came up flat.
"We didn't come to play," said Bosh, who seemed more resigned than angry after his club was blown out on his 26th birthday, the second consecutive game they've been manhandled at home. "I don't think we have that fire right now.
"I can't instill it in guys, you have to have it on your own. And as much as I would like to, I can't do everything. Personally, you have to bring something to plate."
Why more NBA teams don't try to implement the Jazz blueprint is a mystery. They found a good coach, Jerry Sloan, and have backed him to the hilt, keeping him on the bench for 21 years. He finds star-calibre players who happy to play for him and then the roster is filled with players eager to be in the league and willing to work hard to stay there.
For all the talk of loading teams with max-salary players - which will be the theme of this summer's free-agency period, with Bosh as one of the focal points - it's a lesson worth noting.
"You don't have to spend a lot of money to get talent," Bosh said yesterday. "There's a lot of talent in this league and there's guys who are hungry to play well. If you get guys who have that ambition to be the best player they can be and they want to be good players, that's the best mix you can have."
And as for advanced tactics, the Jazz are perhaps the least fancy team in the league.
"I knew the scouting report long before I looked at it yesterday, from being an assistant coach and scouting them four or five years ago," Triano said. "It's the same stuff over and over, and it hasn't changed for 15 years."
Still, the Jazz are poised for their third 50-win season in four years, and 13th in their past 21.
The Raptors, now in their 15th season, are still seeking their first, and it won't be coming this year. More changes probably will though.
NOTES It was Chris Bosh's 26th birthday yesterday. The Toronto Raptors star woke up to "a couple of cards and a whole bunch of texts," he said, but no presents as of midday, though his mother and brother had flown in for the occasion. … It's Marco Belinelli's birthday today. He's likely hoping for his back to get better. He sat out last night and hasn't played since March 20.
NEXT Friday, against the Denver Nuggets at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, 7 p.m. EDT
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