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Tuesday, Apr 14 2009 11:13 PM

Jam needs to regain early-season form

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    Felix Adamo / The Californian Bakersfield's Mateen Cleaves loose the handle on the ball as he squeezes by Utah's Kevin Kruger. Cleaves was also fouled on the play.

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BY ZACH EWING, Californian staff writer zewing@bakersfield.com

Will the real Bakersfield Jam please stand up?

It's time to figure out which version of the city's D-League basketball team is the truth -- the one that started the year 15-7, sat in first place for much of the holiday season and flaunted offensive promise; or the one that sputtered, was hurt by injuries and NBA call-ups and backed into the playoffs despite losing five of six to close the season?

Related Info

JAM AT UTAH FLASH

When 6 p.m. today Where Orem, Utah Radio KERI (1410)

The answer could come at 6 tonight when Bakersfield plays the first playoff game in franchise history -- a first-rounder at Utah. The winner will advance to the D-League semifinals to play either Iowa or Dakota.

"We've had sporadic moments where we've played well," Jam coach Scott Roth said. "I think the last 10 days, we've played two and three quarters of really good basketball. We stubbed our toe a few times, but for the most part, our guys feel comfortable and confident."

The Flash (32-18), winners of the West Division, pose several problems for the Jam (26-24). First and foremost is Utah's size along the front line. The Flash features 7-foot Kosta Koufos, on assignment from the Utah Jazz, 6-foot-10 James Lang and 6-9 Brian Jackson.

"The times we've struggled is when teams have gotten the ball in the paint," Roth said. "We're not very strong inside, so protecting the paint and preventing those easy baskets is huge."

The Flash also has guard Morris Almond on assignment from the Jazz and J.R. Giddens from the Boston Celtics.

There's no doubt the Jam is better than it ever has been before. The first two versions of Bakersfield basketball went 30-70. This year's team started 15-7 and had players set single-season franchise records for scoring (Derrick Byars, 877 points), rebounding (Nick Lewis, 366) and assists (Mateen Cleaves, 294).

The Jam was 2-4 against Utah this year, but both wins came early -- before Bakersfield lost DeMarcus Nelson and Richard Hendrix to the NBA and before Almond and Koufos came to the Flash.

But Bakersfield even had the lead through three quarters of the teams' most recent meeting, March 31 at Rabobank Arena. Utah won the fourth quarter 30-13 to win the game 108-92.

So which is the real Jam? First three quarters or final quarter?

"We feel like we're one of the best teams in the league, even though our record doesn't show," guard Trey Johnson said. "If we do what we have to do, it'll take care of itself."

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