SALT LAKE CITY -- For the past decade, LeBron James has been like the circus in Salt Lake City. He would arrive once a year, put on a memorable show for everyone, then pack up and move on.
Once, on a night when he put up 51 points in the arena at the corner of Karl Malone and John Stockton Drives, he even got a standing ovation from the home crowd as then Jazz coach Jerry Sloan looked around with a scowl. Two years ago, he scored 17 points in the fourth quarter of a game the Miami Heat ended up losing.
The memorable road games in James’ career have been in places such as Detroit, Boston, New York and Indianapolis. But James has dominated in what is now called Energy Solutions Arena like no other place on the NBA map, averaging 33 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and 52 percent shooting over his first 10 years in the league.
All of which made what happened Saturday night all the more unexpected. James played probably his worst game of the season as the juggernaut Heat offense went into a shell against the worst defense in the league, losing to one of the worst teams in the Western Conference 94-89.
Winning in Utah over the years has always been hard for various reasons. The Jazz have been historically good, once going on a run in which they made the playoffs in 20 straight seasons. They don’t play Sunday home games here during the regular season because of a large portion of the fan base’s religious beliefs, so they often get teams playing there on back-to-backs coming off the West Coast. And the arena is designed to keep the fans very close to the floor, which makes it a hard place to play and often a hard place to officiate.
But this is a bad Jazz team, one of the worst ever by any measure. The Heat hadn’t played since Wednesday and the Jazz played, and were smacked around, Friday night in Dallas.
Here’s a little story to put this game in perspective. Several hours before the game, Jazz assistant coach Sidney Lowe brought rookie Trey Burke to the court so he could sit in the front row of the stands to watch Ray Allen’s pregame shooting routine.
That is how the Jazz are using this season, as a teaching experience, putting themselves in the role of students when facing the Heat. So when the Jazz got up by 14 points in the first quarter, it was surprising. When they outplayed the Heat in the fourth quarter to get a victory for the season highlight reel, it was another reminder to be careful wagering on NBA games.
Burke, by the way, hit a shot with 24 seconds left that essentially clinched the game for the Jazz and officially clinched it when the teacher, Allen, missed a few moments later. That’s how it went.
“This was one of those wins we were looking for, where it is not necessarily going our way, where you find a way to dig and win ugly,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And we weren’t able to do it.”
When the Heat left on this road trip, which will last three weeks because it straddles the All-Star break, they set their sights on establishing consistency. But beyond that hard-to-define goal, they started it three games back of the Indiana Pacers for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
With one of the hardest remaining schedules in the league, beating the Jazz was supposed to be a gimme. It didn’t go that way.
Utah came in giving up 108 points per 100 possessions, 30th in the NBA. But the Heat shot just 43 percent, one of their worst of the season, and didn’t crack 90 points. James had just 13 points on 4-of-13 shooting, didn’t make a basket in the fourth quarter and was outplayed by Marvin Williams, who had 23 points and made a huge shot late in the fourth quarter.
Williams, who hadn't cracked the 20-point barrier all season until the last week, now has three consecutive games of 20-plus points. His play, plus a near triple-double from Gordon Hayward, won the night for Utah.
James also had five turnovers, and he’s averaging almost four per game over the past six weeks, a rate that has him on pace to finish with the most in his career. He was also just 1-of-6 on 3-pointers and is now shooting just 26 percent on 3s since Jan. 1.
“I had four turnovers in the third quarter and they were all careless ones,” James said. “It was killing me, it got me out of rhythm.”
That left Dwyane Wade to try to bring the Heat home, and James seemed happy to get out of his way, barely touching the ball as the Heat tried to mount a fourth-quarter rally. Wade had eight of his 19 points in the fourth, but three turnovers for him in that run undercut the effort.
James had been playing reasonably well by his standards over the past month, so this came from nowhere. He brushed it off with a reasonable commentary.
“You have some like this, it happens once or twice a year,” James said. “I’m OK with that, I’ll take those odds.”
Fair point. Bottom line, though, the Heat are now four games back of the Pacers and their next four games are at Phoenix, at Golden State, at Dallas and at Oklahoma City. It’s as tough of a gauntlet as they’ve run in the regular season, and their margin for error is narrowing.
Road losses this season at Sacramento, at Philadelphia and now at Utah have made it hard to keep up with Indiana.
Then again, in the Heat’s world where the regular season’s value is diminished, maybe not.
“I’m not concerned about anything,” Wade declared. “Every year you go through losses on the road to teams, record-wise, that people don’t feel you should lose to. But you do, and it builds character.”