The Utah Jazz have put 5 1/2 months and 5,000 miles between themselves and the last time they met the Phoenix Suns when it counted, but it apparently wasn't enough. The season-opener came and went Friday night (Saturday afternoon in Japan), and not much seemed to have changed.
Kevin Johnson, who threw in the winning shot in Game 5 of the NBA playoffs against the Jazz last spring, was present and accounted for with 29 points. Tom Chambers, another chronic problem for the Jazz, looked like a man who took a long vacation and came back to work with a vengeance, scoring 38 points and taking down 10 rebounds.The first game of what is supposed to be a landmark season for the Jazz got off to a shaky start Friday night, as they dropped a 119-96 decision to the Phoenix Suns at Tokyo's Metropolitan Gymnasium.
In terms of a cultural experience, the trip has been a rousing success. The Jazz saw a new country, made new friends, and did their part for world peace and bringing down the trade deficit. (Japanese fans paid an average $80 per ticket to see the game.) But one game into the season, the Jazz's basketball isn't anything to phone home about. Jeff Malone, the newest Jazz addition, could only make five of 15 attempts and finished with 11 points. The Jazz, plagued by poor shooting through the preseason, shot only 44 percent for the game. Most telling, Utah committed a whopping 27 turnovers.
"We need to get a little bit serious about our jobs," said Jazz forward Karl Malone. "We need to get busy and get serious - we're not serious about our jobs. You can say all you want about other things, but when you boil it down, that's it."
For half a game, the Jazz were in the middle of a close, exciting game. But the third quarter was another story. Utah went from a 58-57 deficit to an 85-72 disadvantage. Phoenix then extended its lead through the final period until the Jazz put in the subs in the last two minutes.
Not Karl Malone's 33 points or an eight-rebound advantage could get the Jazz the leverage they needed to win.
Opening-day optimism aside, the Jazz had several good reasons to be concerned about the game. While Phoenix wrapped up its preseason last Saturday and began immediately preparing for the trip to Japan, the Jazz had other things on their minds, namely two remaining exhibition games. As the Suns were working on adjusting their schedules to Tokyo time by practicing odd hours, the Jazz still had to play Detroit and Boston on consecutive nights before leaving.
Consequently, the teams took distinctly different approaches to the opening game. The Suns did all the adjusting they could, including practicing at 3 a.m.; the Jazz took business as usual posture. "I want this to be just like any other road game," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan.
Although players were allowed to look around the city, most didn't stray far from the task at hand. "It's a business trip," said Thurl Bailey.
Then there was the matter of the Phoenix Suns, who seem to have the Jazz figured out nicely. After beating Utah three of four times during the regular season last year, the Suns then beat them in five games during the playoffs. If you want to get technical, Phoenix's rookies even have the Jazz's number. During the summer league, the Phoenix rookie/free agent team beat the Jazz's by 60 points.
The Suns handled the Jazz at the Salt Palace, 98-92, during the exhibition season.
All that was purportedly past history when Friday's game began.JAZZContinued from D-1
If nothing else, the NBA didn't scrimp on its pregame hype. Scenes of Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Karl Malone, Dominque Wilkins and Michael Jordan were flashed on a large-screen TV screen at one end of the arena. The scenes included generous dosages of U.S. fans going berserk in the crowd - a move the league hoped would prime the conservative Japanese fans for the upcoming action.
The Memphis State dance team did its part for international relations by staging a dance routine that didn't exactly send them into a frenzy, but it did get their full attention.
As the teams warmed up, the crowd called out appreciative Oohs! every time a player performed even a garden variety dunk.
Then came the game.
As promised, the first half was close and intense. Though both teams began somewhat sluggishly, they finally got warmed up a few minutes into the contest.
There was no waiting to showcase the NBA's most marketable product - the slam-dunk. Mark Eaton led off the scoring with a dunk to start the game. Minutes later, Phoenix's Mark West and Utah's Karl Malone got in dunks, both drawing enthusiastic cheers.
The Jazz, behind Malone's 10 first-quarter points, built a five-point lead, only to see it slip away near the end of the period, as Phoenix cut the Utah lead to 29-28.
Phoenix threatened to get a serious lead in the second quarter, going head by 10 points. Suns' forward Dan Majerle and guard Kevin Johnson led the charge, scoring 12 and 16 first-half points, respectively.
However, after falling behind 54-44, Utah put on a late run to cut the lead to one at the break. Karl Malone was everything fans were hoping for in the first half scoring 26 points, including 10 in the last 2 1/2 minutes of the half, to cut Phoenix's lead to 58-57.
By the time the third period had expired, the Jazz were gone for good. Utah's defense and shooting were breaking down and the Suns were getting open breakaway baskets.
"It was a down-home butt-kicking," said Karl Malone. "There's no other way to put it."
The teams meet again Saturday at 8 p.m. (MST). The game will be aired on PSN cable television.
"I'd like to say that if the fans come back tomorrow they'll see an even more exciting game," said Suns Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "They'll see two teams that are more loosened up and more ready to play."