On the eve of the NBA playoffs, I listed 10 players I saw as the biggest X-factors to determine this year’s championship. On purpose, I didn’t include anybody from the Utah Jazz. Truth is, I didn’t think they had a realistic shot at the ‘chip.
I was wrong. After knocking off the higher-seeded Nuggets in the first round and giving the Lakers all they could handle before losing down the stretch in yesterday’s Game 1 of the conference semifinals, the Jazz are as much a competitor as anybody else still alive in the postseason.
With two regular starters (Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur) out with injuries, the Jazz are a team full of X-factors. Almost everybody who gets significant minutes has to play at their best if Utah is going to go all the way, from Deron Williams down to Kyrylo Fesenko. But for the most part, you know what you’re going to get from D-Will, Boozer, Millsap and Korver. Same for Okur and AK-47 should they get healthy.
The one hit-or-miss X-factor whose play could swing this series and define Utah’s realistic title hopes is C.J. Miles. If you’re unfamiliar with his game, consider C.J. the toned-down version of J.R. Smith. His highs aren’t as high, his lows aren’t as low, but he represents the identity of the Jazz — a solid player and good defender made better under Jerry Sloan‘s tutelage — as much as J.R. represents Denver’s crew of tatted and streaky gunners.
Miles put up 16 points (4-12 FG, 7-8 FT) yesterday against the Lakers. He made a couple big shots in the fourth quarter and he missed a couple, but that he’s even on the court and taking those shots is a sign of progress in itself for the fifth-year pro who came to Utah from Skyline High School in Dallas. Not too long ago the 23-year-old was in danger of becoming another high school-to-pros bust; now he’s more confident on offense and a reliable defender in crunch time. In the Nuggets series C.J. was used against Carmelo Anthony, and yesterday he took turns with Wes Matthews guarding Kobe Bryant. In the fourth quarter Miles also took a charge from Derek Fisher that was crucial in Utah’s late comeback attempt.
If not J.R. Smith, you could also look at Miles like Utah’s version of Trevor Ariza in L.A. last year. A timely three-pointer here and there, some game-changing defensive plays, and Miles could be an undercover MVP in the Jazz’s playoff run. If he plays near his potential over the next few games, Utah could knock off the Lakers. If not, they’ll be going home soon.