For the 12,616 in attendance, and the thousands of others out there in TV and radio land, it was the worst-kept secret since Marla Maples. Fifteen seconds to go and the score tied. The Chicago Bulls with the ball. And who were the Bulls going to go to for the last shot? Scottie Pippen? Not a chance. Bill Cartwright? In his dreams. John Paxson? Get real. When it came down to highlight time, they went to none other than (surprise!) Michael Jordan.
After Jordan had beaten the Jazz 84-82 with his buzzer shot Tuesday night, nobody was pretending the outcome was much of a surprise. The only suspense seemed to be whether the Bulls would be able to get the ball to Jordan in time to get off a shot. "We knew he was gonna take it," said Jazz guard Jeff Malone. "Everybody on both teams, and everybody watching tonight knew."And so it unfolded. After the Bulls gave all the photographers time to get Jordan in focus, and everyone who had gone out for refreshments time to get back in their seats, they worked the ball to the left side of the court, where Jordan took the pass. He faked in, forcing Jazz guard Jeff Malone back, then lifted off for an 18-foot jumper that just cleared Thurl Bailey's fingers and dropped in with no time left.
Now the Jazz will have some time away from home to think it over. They leave Wednesday for a six-day, four-game road swing to the East and Midwest. Nothing like leaving town on a bad note. "It's been tough the whole year," observed Karl Malone. "We've been traveling and stuff, and now we've just got to go out and do it again."
For most of the night, the Jazz kept Jordan reasonably in check. He finished with 29 points - his average for the year - but Jeff Malone and Darrell Griffith had managed to keep Jordan from taking off for any highlight dunks. Until the final gun, the most excitement Jordan generated came in a four-second span at the end of the first quarter. With the Jazz leading 20-18, Jordan made a spectacular twisting pass to Stacey King for a dunk, and a moment later stole the Jazz's in-bounds pass and threw in a falling 30-foot shot at the buzzer.
The rest of the time, Jordan was merely troublesome. He got 13 points in the first period, but went scoreless in the second. Part of that, though, was because he sat out almost half the period. "Jeff played pretty good defense," said Jordan. "All I was trying to do was get him in foul trouble."
The philosophy worked. Malone picked up two fouls in the first period, ushering in the entrance of Darrell Griffith at the 4:21 mark.
After taking a 46-42 lead at the break, the Bulls allowed Utah to score the first eight points of the second half. But Jordan saw to it that the Bulls got back the lead by 10 scoring straight points, giving Chicago a 56-50 lead at 6:11 of the third period.
With the score tied at 64 going into the final quarter, the teams settled in to wait for what was certain to be a blood-pressure finish. By then, Jazz fans were beginning to remind themselves that last November John Stockton had hit a driving shot with less than a second to go to give the Jazz a win over the Bulls. But Jordan was having none of it. "Last year is forgotten. It's a different year and justice came a year later," said Jordan. "So we'll take it and run with it."
Said Jazz guard John Stockton, "I guess what goes around comes around."
As the game sped towards its conclusion, the Jazz nearly built up a cushion, going ahead by five. But the Bulls tied it at 80 with 3:17 to go, ensuring a close finish. The Jazz blew a big chance with 16 seconds left when Karl Malone drove accross the lane, but his shot fell away, and the Bulls rebounded to set the final scene. "Any time I'm close to the basket, I should score," said Malone gloomily.
The end was nothing, if not predictable. The Bulls made several passes, and when the clock got down to nine seconds, began getting serious about working the ball to Jordan. "I could sense it (the time) was getting close, and I had to get a shot off somehow, and hope it was the last shot of the game," said Jordan.
It was obvious when he let it fly that the ball had no intention of going awry. It nestled softly into the net, after which Jordan performed an impromptu - but graceful, nonetheless - victory dance. "The shot felt good," said Jordan, "But all of them feel good. I wish they'd all go in."
However exciting the finish, the game wasn't one of beauty. The Jazz, who led the league in field goal percentage last year, are ranked 21st so far this season. They are also 25th in scoring. Chicago ranks fourth in scoring and eighth in field goal percentage. This time, neither team shot over 38 percent.
Stockton, who has been making more than half his field goals, made just four of 14 shots. Thurl Bailey went 3-for-12 after going 2-9 against Houston. Jeff Malone made just four of 11 tries and Blue Edwards 3 of 11.
"This was not a very well-played game," said Stockton. "We missed some layups and some relatively easy jumpers. This just wasn't a classic NBA battle by any means."
But that didn't keep it from being close and interesting. Other than having the Jazz win, the next best things fans could have hoped for was to see Jordan with the ball and time running out. "I kinda went out and created something," said Jordan.
For the Jazz, he mostly created a case of angst, and a bad mood to in which to leave town.
Jazz notes: The outcome moved Chicago's record to 3-4 and the Jazz dropped to 2-3. Next up is a Thursday night game in Orlando, followed by contests at Boston (Friday), Minnesota (Sunday) and Milwaukee (Monday). Utah had won four straight over the Bulls before Tuesday's game. Counting the game against the Bulls, Utah has five games in seven days and by next Sunday will have played nine games in 14 days. Karl Malone led the Jazz with 28 points and 19 rebounds, both team highs.