In the spirit of the season, the Utah Jazz are counting their blessings, few as they are. It's been a rough start and nobody's denying it. The Jazz are finding trouble wherever they go. They're finding it, predictably, in Michael Jordan's last-second jumpers and the Boston Garden's sagging parquet floor. But they're also finding it in the creaking bones of Milwaukee's Jack Sikma and the heavy legs of Orlando's Greg Kite. This year, not only are Boston and Chicago someone to worry about, but so are Orlando and Minnesota and anyone else who wants to pull on their uniforms.
But by late Wednesday night at the Salt Palace, the Jazz were finally in a Thanksgiving mood: Utah 106, Orlando 91. Pass the cranberry sauce.OK, maybe it was only Orlando. But when you're 4-6 to start a season, a win over the YMCA is good news. In fact, the Jazz have been so bad so early, even the opponents are commenting on it. "If they are going to be a great team, they're going to have to go out and put teams like us away," observed Orlando guard Scott Skiles.
Which they did. Eventually. Before that it was carnage in the streets. Reliable John Stockton was working towards a 4-for-13 shooting night. Karl Malone, despite being on his way to scoring 32 points, was missing half his free throws. Thurl Bailey was pitching headlong back into a shooting slump he thought he had shaken. And the Jazz defense - long Coach Jerry Sloan's pet project - was again on the fritz, allowing open shots without conscience.
The picture was starting to look suspiciously familiar: Jazz get off to impressive lead; Jazz start to lose concentration; opposition mounts rally and gains momentum by halftime; third quarter is the boys' night out. "For a minute there you'd look up and say, `Oh no, what's going to happen now?' " said Malone.
"We were just coasting around," said Sloan. "But we can't win a lot of games that way. I think our coasting period ought to be over."
However, with seven minutes to go, the complexion changed. The Jazz defense suddenly got rude. Mark Eaton blocked two key shots and Bailey two more. The Orlando front court, which had been allowed access to the offensive boards earlier, was evicted without notice. And the long-lost Jazz offense began to run.
"Our game is to get on the break and let's run," said Eaton.
What? Did he say run? The league's second-lowest scoring team?
"I'd like to run the break all the time, but the defense hasn't been good enough to get the fast break going," said Sloan.
When the Jazz defense finally came around - the one that allowed Orlando to make five uncontested three-point shots - the Jazz began to look like their press clippings.
The resurgence began with a free throw on an illegal defense call and peaked with a Jeff Malone turnaround jumper that capped a 17-0 Jazz rally. Smelling a big victory, they continued down the stretch, ending the game by outscoring the Magic 23-4.
What happened in between was everything the Jazz have promised, but rarely delivered. Jeff Malone, in one of his patented hot streaks, scored eight of his 13 points in the final seven minutes. Karl Malone, no longer worrying about who was pulling on his shirt, rolled inside twice in a row to give Utah the lead with 4:23 left. Stockton busied himself bringing the ball up on the break and passing off for easy shots.
On the other end of the court, the Jazz shut down Orlando dramatically. The Magic went four minutes without scoring a point.
In the final two minutes, everybody wanted to make a curtain call. Eaton hit two free throws and a layup. Bailey contributed a slam. Jeff Malone had a pair of jumpers. Karl Malone added a layup and an assist.
"I think the defense turned it on," said Karl. "We stopped being selfish on defense and came over and helped our teammates. Defense wins games. You can't just outscore people."
Added Eaton, "You can see what we're capable of doing for a period of a few minutes, then you'd see how badly we can play."
The Jazz opened a nine-point lead in the second quarter, bolstered by the appearance of Darrell Griffith, who had a fine 16-point night, including two three-pointers. But the Magic came back from a 45-40 deficit to outscore the Jazz 6-1, tying the score. Jerry Reynolds made a wide-open three-point shot at the halftime buzzer to put the Magic up by three.
In the early third period, Orlando built its lead to 10, at 68-58, as the crowd began to boo. But a late third-quarter run, led by Griffith, brought the Jazz within a point before the period ended.
Orlando held to the lead until Malone's layup put Utah up 88-87 with 4:23 remaining. "We had the lead and were all right at the mid-80s, and then everything went to pot down the stretch," said Magic Coach Matt Guokas.
With Thanksgiving Day off, the win gave the Jazz something to celebrate. They had returned on Tuesday from a three-loss, four-game road swing that included a 102-99 loss to Orlando. With 10 of the next 13 games at home, they didn't want to start things off by losing. "The Jazz are hungry, " said Guokas. "They had a horrible road trip."
Indeed they did. But these days, every trip could be horrible for the Jazz. And every team can be a problem. Said Karl Malone, "We're going to have some close games from a lot of not-so-good teams. Right now, we're on that borderline, that borderline of being a not-so-good team ourselves."
At a glance
Who's hot - Darrell Griffith, who is making 47 percent of his shots, including 43 percent from three-point range.
Who's not - Thurl Bailey and Blue Edwards, who are shooting 39 percent and 41 percent, respectively.
Milestones - Wednesday marked Griffith's 700th career game. He is the franchise all-time leader in games played, minutes played, and field goals attempted and made. John Stockton's six first-quarter steals tied his own franchise record.