By SCOTT BELL
The Utah Jazz are like a math equation: there are the constants and there are the variables.
The constants are eventual Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton and sidekick gunner Jeff Hornacek. That trio will produce every game. With them, the Jazz is a perennial 50-win team and Western Conference contender.
The variables are the role players, or “supporting cast” as Michael Jordan calls his teammates in Chicago. When they come through, the Jazz is a legitimate title contender.
The two most exciting, athletic and perhaps important role players for Utah are Bryon Russell and Shandon Anderson. Both can provide energy, hustle, defense and crowd-pleasing highlights. If Russell and Anderson are on their games, Utah is tough to beat.
“It’s an important thing, the same old thing we always talk about,” said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. “Maybe some guys have tough matchups, and we need the guys coming off the bench to give us a lift.”
Unfortunately for the Jazz, until recently the pair had been heading in opposite directions. While Anderson has continued to improve after his surprising rookie season, Russell’s game was submersed somewhere in the Great Salt Lake.
After averaging a career-high 10.8 points per game last year and then improving to 12.3 points per game in Utah’s playoff run, Russell signed a much-publicized four-year $20 million contract in the summer.
He then proceeded to make owner Larry H. Miller look foolish for much of this season’s first two months. Russell’s average is down to 7.9 points per game, his three-point shooting is down from 41 percent last year to 26 percent and his starting job has been given to Adam Keefe.
Meanwhile, Anderson’s play just continues to improve. His minutes are up from last year, and he’s averaging 8.6 points a contest, compared to 5.9 points per game a year ago. He also signed a contract extension over the summer, and is looking like a steal.
Lately, Russell has shown signs of being his old self again. In Thursday night’s game against Milwaukee, Anderson and Russell put on a tantalizing showcase of just how good the Jazz can be when both of them are hitting.
Russell and Anderson scored 17 points apiece against the Bucks as Utah rolled to a 116-109 victory. Both players came in the game in the second quarter and wasted little time in taking over. When Russell tossed in a three as the quarter ended, the duo had combined for 18 points in the quarter as Utah held off Milwaukee’s most valiant run.
In the fourth quarter, the two played well again as Utah pulled away. Both Anderson and Russell had big-time dunks to help do in Milwaukee.
After the game, neither wanted to make much of their performances.
“I did alright,” Russell said. When asked if he and Anderson were planning on scoring that much every game from now on, he simply responded, “We can.”
“In our system, some games some guys will play good and some won’t,” Anderson said. “Fortunately, tonight we were playing good. If you’re playing good, Jerry’s going to play you.”
For the Jazz to duplicate or exceed last year’s performance, Anderson and Russell will have to produce more similar outings.