LOS ANGELES – Jerry Sloan told his Utah Jazz what he always tells them. Play hard. Fight. Don't get outworked. Make them feel you.
"I don't think there's anything wrong," Sloan said this week, "with asking them to compete."
Well, you know what they say: If you have to ask …
So that's where the Jazz are today. Down 0-2 to the Los Angeles Lakers, jetting home to Salt Lake City, their old coach forever trying to toughen them up a little bit more. If Sloan makes as much progress between Games 2 and 3 as he did 1 and 2, this series just might become interesting.
In Sloan's world, whoever works the hardest the longest almost always wins. He was brought into the game that way, and through 21 seasons as Utah's coach, he hasn't changed his message. So when Sloan said the Jazz needed to get nastier after the Lakers routed them on Sunday, the result was predictable.
Jarron Collins decked Trevor Ariza with a brutal screen. Carlos Boozer sent Kobe Bryant careening into Paul Millsap with a well-placed push. Collins tossed Shannon Brown to the floor. Millsap ripped the ball from Andrew Bynum's hands.
The Lakers eventually battled their way to a 119-109 victory on Tuesday, but they also left knowing they had been in a fight. For the Jazz, that should be considered a sign of growth.
"I think we're a better team playing with them," Sloan said, "than we were to start with."
These aren't the elbows-flared, bare-knuckled Jazz of John Stockton and Karl Malone, and Sloan knows it. They're young, still unsure how to win on the road. On some nights, they can't be bothered to defend. The Jazz made a run to the West finals two years ago and pushed the Lakers to six games in last season's second round with largely the same cast, but injuries tempered this season's progress. Even now, they're missing starting center Mehmet Okur, whose absence has made it all the more difficult to match up with the bigger and longer Lakers.
Still, an infusion of young legs isn't the only change Utah has undergone since Malone and Stockton hung up their short shorts. Deron Williams, who followed up his brilliant 17-assist performance in Game 1 with a playoff career-best 35 points on Tuesday, is tough and physical, making him a good fit for Sloan. Millsap will bang, and Matt Harpring looks like he could start at inside linebacker for the Patriots. But many of these Jazz are better suited for the open floor than brawling under the rim.
"I don't think this team is in any sense of the imagination like the Karl Malone era," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "where Karl would elbow people and make his presence felt inside, and was literally a physical threat when you were inside the lane."
There's a good reason for that. While Williams has grown into a worthy successor to Stockton, he's still looking for his Malone. Boozer tried to nominate himself for that role two seasons ago but has fallen considerably short since.
Unlike Boozer, Malone rarely missed a game. Malone, despite his occasional wrangling with the Jazz's late owner, Larry Miller, made Salt Lake City his home for 18 years. Boozer has seemingly wanted out of town since the ink on his contract dried. That's why the Jazz likely won't be too upset if Boozer opts out of his deal this summer and becomes a free agent. Their money would be better spent re-signing Millsap.
With or without Boozer, Sloan's young core will toughen in their own way as they grow together. They'll set better screens, they'll make harder cuts. They'll become more patient, more willing to make the extra pass for a better shot. They'll also learn that against a team as talented and deep as the Lakers, you can't take plays off, let alone halves.
After watching the Lakers shoot 71 percent in the series' opening quarter on Sunday, the Jazz vowed not to be put on their heels again. So Game 2 began and the Lakers proceeded … to shoot 86 percent while scoring 41 points in the first quarter. Late in the second quarter, the Jazz found themselves down 17.
"Bottom line is you have to play hard first," Sloan said, "and the rest of the stuff takes care of itself as you move forward."
The Jazz learned as much. They picked up their aggressiveness, doubling the Lakers' big men more quickly, banging the Lakers' guards when they tried to penetrate, clawing back all the while.
"You see a lot of bodies flying all over the place, scrums breaking out," Bryant said. "You just try to make sense of it."
The Lakers eventually did. Down three with about three minutes left, the Jazz had an opportunity to tie, but Kyle Korver threw away a pass. The Jazz continued to rush their offense and Bryant and Ariza hit back-to-back daggers to put the game out of reach.
Sloan thought the Jazz became anxious, and Williams blamed himself: "I have to step up and calm everybody down."
Even still, the Jazz won back some measure of their confidence. They now head home, where they almost always play better, where they beat the Lakers twice in last season's playoffs. The Lakers also know this much: Sloan's teams don't give up.
"We're supposed to be eliminated in four straight games," Sloan said, "so we'll see what happens."
Sloan's message won't change. Play harder. Fight. Compete. He's never asked for much more.