It is now 13 games into the NBA season, and still nobody knows exactly what to think of the Utah Jazz. They started off bad enough to put some serious mileage on owner Larry Miller's heart. But now, for the first time since Nov. 8, they're back above the .500 mark (7-6). They aren't great and they aren't awful. And, says the team's resident philosopher Karl Malone, they aren't the Good Old Reliable Utah Jazz, either. "We've won four in a row and still not played great," said Malone. "That's the positive thing. But we're still not back to the Jazz I'm used to. Tell you what: It's going to be really exciting when we do get it together."
Malone's statement can't be good news for the Houston Rockets. Wednesday night at the Salt Palace the Jazz dispatched the Rockets 103-92, in their easiest win of the season. Houston's renowned Akeem was a bad dream most of the night, throwing up errant shots and playing as though he'd left his inside game on the team bus. Once it became obvious Olajuwon wasn't having one of his better nights, the matter was pretty well decided."He missed a lot of shots," said Rockets' Coach Don Chaney. "Our spacing wasn't great and we've got to do a better job of getting people away from him."
As it was, Akeem found plenty of company, most of it wearing Jazz clothing. Mark Eaton blocked Olajuwon's lane to the basket consistently. When he got past Eaton, he found any number of other Jazz players helping out. "Akeem could get by me, but I had a lot of help backing me up," said Eaton.
In lieu of making a living off driving dunks, Olajuwon opted to sit back and take jumpers. The results weren't impressive: 8-of-18 shooting and 19 points - six below his average. Five of his points came in the last three minutes when the game was already over.
What happened Wednesday in the Salt Palace was just the opposite of the goings-on in Houston two weeks ago. Then Olajuwon was making outside and inside shots, on his way to a 31-point, 21-rebound night. As recently as Tuesday night in a win over the Clippers, he was muderous from the outside. He made five of nine shots in the final 91/2 minutes of the Clippers' game, only one of those shots being closer than 13 feet.
"When I first came into the league, I tried to dunk on everybody," Olajuwon told reporter afterward. "Now I take the easy baskets."
But this time, none were easy. Two minutes into the contest, Olajuwon rolled toward the basket and put up a shot, but Eaton mashed it back with ease. Shortly after, Olajuwon traveled. Olajuwon didn't get his first point until there was 3:37 left in the period, that being on a breakaway dunk.
"Yeah, he looked a little frustrated," said Eaton. "They depend so much on his offense."
Despite Olajuwon's troubles, the Rockets held to a 24-20 lead at the quarter. The Jazz had obliged by shooting a sorry 35 percent for the period.
Once the second quarter began, though, the Jazz started taking control. They scored the first eight points, capped by a backhanded finger roll by Thurl Bailey. Although Olajuwon tied the score at 36 on a layup, it was the last time Houston would be tied. The Jazz wrapped up the period on John Stockton's two-handed, over-the-head pass to Blue Edwards for a reverse slam that put Utah ahead 42-38 at the break.
The Jazz put it out of reach in the third period, thanks to a 10-point scoring flurry by Jeff Malone and good play off the bench from Delaney Rudd (seven points). The Jazz shot a spectacular 73 percent for the period while the Rockets managed to make just 11 of 30 attempts.Utah built its lead to 22 points in the fourth quarter, as Malone totaled 12 points. He finished the game with typical Mailman numbers: 31 points, 13 rebounds. Strangely, after being mauled and double-teamed throughout the first meeting with the Rockets - a 110-90 Houston win - Malone saw little such action this time around. "For whatever reason, they didn't double team me, and I love that," said Malone. "They do that, it saves 10 years off my life."
Said Chaney, "The strategy was the same as before. We just didn't do a good job," he said. "Karl Malone just keeps coming at you. He's one of those guys that's relentless and you've got to admire that."
Though the Rockets cut the Jazz lead to 11 at the end, it was all done during garbage time. Vernon Maxwell landed a three-pointer with nine seconds remaining.
"We got a little sloppy there," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "It was a situation where the ball was bouncing off guys heads, necks, feet, chests, whatever. We lost our concentration."
The victory was the franchise's 600th overall victory. But, having been through a dangerous November, nobody on the Jazz team was in a self-aggrandizing mood. "We had some very good parts, and others we didn't look good at all," said Eaton. "We're still searching for our identity."
NOTES: The Jazz return to action Friday with a game in the Salt Palace against Minnesota . . . Jazz forward Blue Edwards broke his nose against the Rockets. Initial reports said he would be out 10-12 days. Surgery is likely, and probably will be Friday . . . The Jazz aren't that far off last year's pace. At the same time last year, they were 8-5. . .Utah is now 6-1 when holding its opponents under 100 points . . . The Jazz's career record is 599-725.