The Jazz's bandleader

The Vertical
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SALT LAKE CITY – The executive who had been so determined to bring the best young guard on the planet to the Utah Jazz was standing in the hallway outside the interview room at the old Delta Center, tie undone, jacket over shoulder, shaking his head in mock assurance.

This good, this fast?

"Yeah, yeah," said Kevin O'Connor smiling, nodding over to Deron Williams, "I knew it all along."

And then, O'Connor, Utah's vice president of basketball operations, rolled his eyes and let out a laugh. Because as desperately as he wanted to trade for Portland's third pick in the 2005 NBA draft to take Williams over Chris Paul, as sold as he had been on the Illinois guard's talent and temperament and toughness, no one could see this coming so soon on the job.

Williams has destroyed the best defense in basketball in these Western Conference finals, running roughshod over the San Antonio Spurs for 31 points, eight assists and five steals on Saturday night. The Jazz pounded San Antonio 109-83 in Game 3 of the West finals, and they're alive trailing two games to one because Williams has come so far, so fast, in his brief, blurring pro career.

The most impressive part isn't that he has gone for 30 points a game in this series, that he gets to the basket and gets shots for himself and his teammates against these Spurs that Steve Nash couldn't get a series ago. No, it's the way Williams is carrying himself, the way he's leading, the way he's hell-bent on resisting the thinking that these Jazz are too young, too raw, to hit back on these three-time champion Spurs.

With Williams and Carlos Boozer, the next generation Stockton-and-Malone, they keep coming and coming in this series. They won't beat the Spurs in this best-of-seven series, but the Jazz are winning respect.

As much as anything, Williams' peerless play has downright demanded it.

"What we saw in him was a guard who understood flow, who understood tempo, but wasn't afraid to take a shot," O'Connor said. "He wasn't afraid to take the big shot and be blamed, or praised. When he takes the ball to the basket, he's looking to pass. He'll shoot it, but he's looking to pass the ball."

The words come tumbling out of O'Connor good and fast when he's talking about Williams, but in the end, he slows down and punctuates it with the ultimate truth of the matter.

"He really wants to win."

That's it. He's a winner. As soon as O'Connor and Jerry Sloan met him at the Chicago predraft camp two years ago, and in Salt Lake for his interview, they knew they had to have him.

For young guards, the Spurs should be a nightmare. They're tough to beat on the dribble, and tougher to score upon at the rim with Tim Duncan there. Bruce Bowen had shared duty with Tony Parker on Williams in Games 1 and 2, and it wasn't lost on Williams that the toughest, nastiest defender in basketball had requested a bigger burden in Game 3.

"I heard he wanted to be on me more," Williams said. "I like the physical play, you know."

In the way that so many of his peers have bemoaned Bowen's brutish behavior, Williams never lets the Spurs' stopper believe he's getting to him. He dismisses him with blow-by baskets, three-pointers and blink-of-the-eyes passes. He dismisses him with a precocious wink and a smile.

"I like when Bruce grabs me, holds me," Williams said, "because I know where he is at and I can make a move off that."

Now, Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski is determined to make Williams a major part of the Olympic team, sold on the belief that Williams and Jason Kidd are the kind of bigger, stronger guards necessary for international success. Even in the NBA, where defenders aren't allowed to touch you out on the perimeter, O'Connor is convince that the point guard is, "more valuable now" in the league.

The whole sport is witnessing the rapid rise of Williams, who a year ago struggled in Sloan's system. He had a hard time understanding the kind of shape and stamina it would take to play for one of basketball's most demanding coaches. Now, he has turned into something of an unstoppable force in these playoffs.

"Our most important player, our engine," Utah's Gordan Giricek said.

Back in the Jazz locker room, Derek Fisher was remembering his draft class in 1996, with Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Steve Nash. To different degrees, they would become stars in the sport, with Nash and Iverson winning MVP awards. Here's the thing, too: Iverson was spectacular, but he was no more a point guard, a playmaker, than the man on the moon.

"Maybe other than Allen, a lot of guys in their second year were still finding their way," Fisher said. "Even Steve wasn't even playing a lot. You think about Darren's development from year one to year two, and it's not even just the statistics, but his poise, his decision-making.

"He's leading our team."

When asked if he thought Williams would be competing for MVPs someday too, Fisher was reluctant to bless him with such a burden. "He's my guy and all, but give him some time," Fisher warned.

Give him time? No, Deron Williams keeps playing in these playoffs like he's running out of time, and that's the genius of his drive. It's hard to believe that he's going to win this series, but he's going to win America's respect. "A lot of people haven't seen us play all year," Williams said. "We didn't have that many games on TV. So for them to see us play now and see that we are a real team. … We're young and we should be around for a couple years."

He's 22 years old, going on 23 next month, and Williams has gone a long way in this season, in this series, to declare his candidacy for greatness in the NBA. This is supposed to be San Antonio's championship run and all, but Deron Williams, he doesn't listen. He keeps coming.

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