The game had ended and the Mailman was in the dressing room, brushing vigorously on his teeth, when the subject of playing in the final minutes came up. "I wanna be out there," he said between swipes. "I know they have to see how the rookies will do in that situation. But I came and suited up; I wanted to play."
However, Malone was having no such luck Tuesday night at the Salt Palace. He like the other Jazz stars, had been long been put away when the final horn sounded. Where was John Stockton? Taking mental notes on the bench. And Karl Malone? Probably checking his gym bag for dental floss. Jeff Malone? Studying his fingernails. Thurl Bailey? Going over Brahms' Double Concerto in his head.Where were the game-savers down the stretch?
On the bench watching, one and all.
The Jazz had taken the lead with 1:53 to go against Phoenix, and appeared poised to gain their first exhibition win of the year. But no, wait. In a flurry of turnovers and botched plays, the Jazz made way for yet another preseason loss, falling 98-92 to Phoenix.
The loss moved Utah's preseason record to 0-3, following two weekend losses against Chicago. It was, however, an improvement over their last two games. In those outings, they lost by 15 and nine points, respectively.
Which isn't to say the improvement was enough to win. Instead of turning the game over to the veterans to nail things down, Coach Jerry Sloan played it like a dad pushing his kid on a bike. Let's see what you can do on your own. While Phoenix had a couple of subs in the game at the end - Tim Perry and rookie Cedric Ceballos - the Suns also had veterans Jeff Hornacek, Dan Majerle and Mark West. The Jazz's final lineup included rookies Chris Munk, Mark Tillmon and Walter Palmer, with Mike Brown in for protection and Darrell Griffith in for desperation bombs.
"I'm not going to put the veterans in at the end," said Sloan. "They're going to experience that 80-something times during the year. This was a situation where the young players deserved a chance to be in there."
Unlike in the two games in Chicago, the Jazz played the year's first Salt Palace game like they intended to win. Whenever the Jazz starters went in, the lead went up. In the early going the Jazz maintained a four or five point edge, in large part to Malone's 10-point first period. They ended the quarter leading by 10.
The second quarter was mostly a Jeff Hornacek, production. The Suns' guard poured in 14 points in less than 12 minutes. Even so, the Jazz maintained a 51-50 halftime lead.
Had fans shown up for the third period alone, they may have gotten the impression it was a well-played game. Both teams picked up the pace and got into a comfortable rhythm. They began looking momentarily like two playoff-bound teams.
But things began to wane early, starting when Suns' guard Kevin Johnson went down with what was later diagnosed as a sprained arch, never to return.
Utah made a move to break the game open by outscoring Phoenix 11-1 to go up 85-75 early in the final period. But that only opened the door for a final slide. Phoenix rookie Ceballos, who scored 10 points in the final period, tied the score at 89 with 1:39 to go. Dan Majerle's rebound basket at 1:14 gave Phoenix the lead for good.
For the Jazz, the final minute was a little shop of horrors. Mike Brown's driving shot was blocked, Phoenix's Ceballos got off a slam dunk, Munk was called for goal tending and Tillmon committed two turnovers. "I admit, I got kind of nervous at the end," said Tillmon.
"We mishandled the ball too many times," said Sloan. "We stopped moving. But that's not uncommon. I'd rather have it happen now than in another situation."
But with four players left to cut before opening night, it may be the only serious NBA time some will get. "A guy doesn't make it in the league, 20 years down the road he can say he got in the game when it went down to the wire," said Sloan.
That being the case, he'll also have to explain how they lost a game they shouldn't have.
Jazz notes: Center Alan Bannister, thought to be a strong possibility to make this year's team, will need knee surgery and is listed as being out indefinitely . . . Delaney Rudd and Eric Johnson are also nursing injuries but both should be back for Saturday's game against Boston in Ogden . . . Karl Malone led Utah with 17, while Bailey added 15, along with nine rebounds . . .Hornacek led Phoenix with 22 . . . Phoenix improved to 2-0 in exhibition play.