The problems started for the Utah Jazz with 3 1/2 minutes left in the first quarter, when Akeem Olajuwon swung out to the left side and floated
in a 15-foot jump shot. Everyone knows Akeem, the NBA's leading rebounder last year, is trouble on the inside. But now, as if the Jazz don't have enough to worry about, Olajuwon has taken a liking to the outside, too.Coming to Houston hasn't often been a good trip for the Jazz, and Sunday night at the Summit, it got worse: Rockets 110, Jazz 90. Utah's first road game against a Midwest Division team was anything but encouraging for the Jazz. The loss left Utah at 2-2 for the season, and set the stage for another massive problem: Michael Jordan. The Jazz returned Monday afternoon to Salt Lake to await Tuesday night's contest in the Salt Palace against the Chicago Bulls.
But let's take it one headache at a time.
At first glance, Olajuwon's outside jumper wasn't particularly menacing. The Jazz had built an 18-12 lead, thanks to a surprise appearance by Darrell Griffith. Griffith, who had expected to spend most of the night doing relief work for starter Jeff Malone, learned just before tipoff that Malone wasn't going to be around.
Malone had banged his right elbow in last Thursday's game against San Antonio, but it hadn't appeared serious. He hit it again in practice on Saturday, but still no problem. But on Sunday morning he awoke to an ugly elbow swelling, and attempts to fix it by warming up were futile.
"I think something bit me last night," said Malone.
In the absence of Malone, whose appearance was limited to sitting on the bench in street clothes, the Jazz went to Griffith. And though Griffith wasn't the player who was supposed to make the Rockets worry, nobody had considered the Houston Factor. Simply stated, the Houston Factor means Griffith is going to have a good night against the Rockets. Last year against the Rockets, though he only scored his average of eight points a game in five meetings, he made six three-pointers against them. In one game he went for 20 points, hence the memory of big games against Houston.
"We call Griff the Rocket Killer," said Houston Coach Don Chaney. "He has great games against us. Sedale Threatt of Seattle and Grif, whenever they play the Rockets, they light it up."
For most of the first half it was Akeem vs. Griffith. Griffith had 12 points in the first quarter, including a rare four-point play (a three-point basket and a free throw). By the early second period, Griffith had 14 of the Jazz's first 27 points.
Meanwhile, Olajuwon, on his way to a 31-point, 21-rebound night, was no less imposing. Once he hit his first outside jumper, he knew he was onto something. He followed with a nine-footer in the lane that also drew a free throw, that put the Rockets ahead 21-20.
After a fairly quiet second period, Olajuwon started up again near the end. He made a 17-footer with 31 seconds to go in the half, and folllowed in the third quarter with two 18-footers and a 15-foot basket.
By this time, the Jazz knew they would have to guard Akeem all the way to the showers. But when Jazz center Mark Eaton went outside to stop him, Olajuwon simply drove past for layups.
"He kind of got on a roll early on. Then he started becoming unconscious outside," said Eaton.
"Our team basically pulled him (Eaton) out and when he came out, Akeem went by him," said Chaney.
Meanwhile, Jazz forward Karl Malone was going through another night of trouble. In Thursday's win over San Antonio, he had just five points until midway through the fourth quarter. This time, bogged down by the pounding defense of Otis Thorpe and whoever else was within mugging distance, Malone got off only four shots in the half, missing all. He finished the game with 17 points, but made only five of 15 field goal attempts.
"I'm never one to make excuses when things don't go well," said Malone. "It's not a typical Karl Malone game; I think I forced some shots tonight, but, hey, whether I score 30 or not I'm not going to force the shot this year."
After trailing by 11 points, the Jazz finally crawled back into a two-point lead. John Stockton, who led the Jazz along with Griffith with 24 points apiece, led the comeback, and Utah took a 77-75 lead with 10:31 left in the game. But then the Jazz went cold, making just five of 23 fourth-period shots. The Jazz went from a 79-78 lead to a 99-81 deficit, scoring just two points in a six-minute period.
"We played good, solid basketball except for about a two-minute stretch," said Stockton. "But you've got to concentate for 48 minutes, not 46."
"We softened up defensively after we got the lead. Then they made a couple of shots and we started to panic," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan.
While the Jazz were missing shots and not getting back on defense, the Rockets were roaring down the court, dunking. Soon it was time to send in the cleanup crew.
In a city where the Jazz failed to win twice last year, the latest defeat came as no surprise. As the Jazz have found, playing in the Midwest Division isn't going to be a day at Galveston beach.
"There's not going to be any rest periods this year," said Karl Malone, "so you just gotta hang in there and play play tough and hope good things will happen."
But on this trip, the best thing to happen to the Jazz was simply getting out of town.
For the record
- Darrell Griffith's 24 points gave him 12,003 career points. He is 27th on the list of active scoring leaders.
- Mark Eaton's two blocks gave him 2,601 career blocks, the second-highest total in NBA history.
- Jerry Sloan needs three wins to reach the 100-win mark as coach of the Jazz.