Posted by: James Seaman on February 7th, 2012The author's views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of the Utah Jazz.
Monday night offered a glimpse of what awaits the Jazz as their schedule takes a turn for the difficult. Home dates will be rare and hotel stays plentiful for the next two months. For many performers—basketball players and rock stars alike—the road is where stardom is born or glory is lost.
Led Zeppelin—arguably the greatest touring band of all time—used the road to build a mythical legacy. Legend has it that Zep’s drummer John Bonham once drove his motorcycle through the halls of the Continental Hyatt House during one of the band’s debaucherous stays at the famed Los Angeles hotel. Led Zeppelin did fine studio work but made its name delivering scintillating live performances and receiving lifetime bans from reputable hotels for trashing suites and throwing television sets out of windows. The rigors of the road seemed to bring out both the best and the beast in the mighty Led Zeppelin.
In professional basketball, games away from home may not produce such wanton destruction, but they do erode the fabric of a team’s strength and identify. Only the best consistently conquer the road and break the opponent’s will in front of an enemy crowd. Michael Jordan won six championships and in half of those he closed out the series in the other team’s building. Jordan played 18 Finals games on the road and won 12 of them. (Three of his six Finals road losses came in Salt Lake City).
Before the Stockton-Malone Jazz learned to win playoff games on the road, they were like Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. The band made trend-altering music but Barrett, the lead singer, couldn’t perform on stage and would stand almost comatose in front of the audience, barely strumming his guitar. The Jazz, too, used to freeze-up on tour (though Syd Barrett’s episodes were also provoked by dropping crazy amounts of acid). Stockton and Malone went 0-8 on the road in the Western Conference Finals between 1992 and 1996 before a win at Seattle in Game 5 of the ’96 series became a watershed moment in franchise history. While Utah still fell in seven, they’d prolonged the series (once trailing 3-1) by staving off elimination in front of a bloodthirsty Sonics crowd, finally proving to themselves they could win a big playoff game on the road. A year later, the Jazz would clinch the Western Conference Finals on Houston’s floor against three future Hall of Famers.
The 2012 Jazz have their own road battles to fight and they don’t involve the Conference Finals. Currently the Jazz have just two road wins, fewer than anyone but Detroit, Washington, and Charlotte. In case you haven’t checked the standings, those teams are hideous.
Utah has taken advantage of a home-friendly schedule thus far. The Jazz have suited up at EnergySolutions Arena 15 times, tied with Boston for the second most home contests in the league (Philly has hosted 16 games). Ty Corbin needed that fortuitous scheduling to get his team reading the same sheet of music. After three road disasters in the season’s first week, consistent home dates have helped players tune their instruments. Corbin has drawn a steady beat from the band’s rhythym section—veterans Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Earl Watson, and Raja Bell. The young players, meanwhile, have added the improvisation, each finding time to shine. But now the Jazz must march to a different beat as the road beckons.
Including Monday night’s disappointment in New York, Utah plays 21 of 32 games on the road. In the 60 days from February 1st through the end of March, the Jazz play 34 times. This includes dates at Indiana, Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago, the Lakers, Atlanta, Boston, and the Clippers. The key to winning these daunting road challenges is defense. Teams shoot worse on the road and the Jazz can expect to have their share of offensive struggles away from home for a variety of reasons. Enemy crowds can unnerve young players while traveling breaks familiar routines. Things click more easily in the friendly confines when you have a supportive crowd cheering you on after a good night’s sleep in your own bed, capping a day of comfort and predictability.
The road brings not only hostile fans but hostile hotel beds and restaurant food. All the riches of an NBA salary can’t buy the love that goes into a home-cooked meal. And then, of course, there’s the schedule—leaving an arena after an exhausting game and boarding a flight to the next unfamiliar town, arriving in the wee hours for another road game that night. No wives or girlfriends or kids to lend support. Even the basket seems unfriendly—some players simply shoot better at home with a familiar backdrop behind the hoop. With so many hazards, it’s no wonder the performances of role players and youngsters tend to vary wildly between home and away matchups. (Stars are stars and will shine anywhere).
We can assume a certain amount of offensive inconsistency on the road, but defensive effort regardless of venue becomes the equalizer. Unfortunately, the defense required to win on the road has escaped the Jazz of late as Utah now ranks 23rd in points allowed. The Jazz must find a way to turn things around defensively or opponents will ruthlessly exploit this weakness. NBA teams don’t usually offer hospitality or express empathy to weary travelers, and the Jazz will surely be offered no quarter on their coming journey. As Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters sang, “It’s a long road to ruin.”
While the road is fraught with danger, it also provides the opportunity for teams to find themselves, to avoid the distractions of local media, and to develop an identity of toughness. Most clubs never manage to do this, but winners turn the road in their favor and develop the accompanying swagger. Kevin Millar used to embody that sort of braggadocio when leading his band of unkempt Red Sox marauders on the road: “We’re coming, and Hell’s coming with us.”
Have the Jazz learned enough at home to take this show on the road? Has Ty Corbin engendered them with enough confidence and poise? And have Jazz fans cheered loudly enough to make the players believe we’ll all be watching our television sets and rooting hard for the team to return home victorious? As The Postal Service sang: “When you’re out there on the road, for several weeks of shows, and when you scan the radio, I hope this song will guide you home.”
Home is now a far away notion for the Jazz with Utah dates few and far between for the next two months. Here’s to hoping the Jazz bury this Knicks loss and set out to master the road. This harsh stretch of schedule will make or break our playoff hopes. It’ll either be Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven or AC/DC’s Highway to Hell.
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