Having been through a week of playing the Giants of the Industry, the Utah Jazz are ready to admit they're working themselves into a major groove. On Sunday, it was a close loss to Portland, which has been roaming the Northwest like Bigfoot. Monday, the Jazz took a side-route and wiped out so-so Washington. Wednesday, they were back with the heavyweights, blitzing defending World Champion Detroit by 21.
But the high point of the week may have come Friday night at the Salt Palace, as the Jazz erased the Los Angeles Lakers, 101-79.Bolt the doors. The Jazz are coming.
For the third game in a row the Jazz got superb defense and a steady performance from virtually every player, as they claimed their ninth win in 11 games. The victory improved Utah's season record to 11-7 after starting the year with a 2-5 record.
The fact that the Jazz are now rolling along at a speed slightly faster than sound hasn't been lost. "Sooner or later, people will start to believe us," said Karl Malone, who finished with 27 points, to lead the Jazz. "We had a slow start and people were starting to jump ship . . . go off the deep end. But we're focused. We know we can play with anybody in the league now."
He should get no argument there.
Going into Friday's game, the Jazz and Lakers had experienced curiously similar circumstances in the early season. Both opened with 2-5 records and both eventually put together good runs to get back to respectability.
"We were in the same boat," said the Lakers' Magic Johnson. "We lost some games and then everyone was talking about Portland, Phoenix and San Antonio."
By the time Friday rolled around, the game was taking on interesting implications. The Lakers had won eight straight, the Jazz seven of eight.
Thursday in Minnesota, the Lakers had dispatched the Timberwolves on a night that could only be described as strange. Hoping to do something to stop Magic Johnson from posting up inside on his guards, Minnesota Coach Bill Musselman had put 7-3 center Randy Breuer on Johnson.
"Just before the jump ball, I went to (Johnson) and said, 'Don't laugh too hard at what we're going to do to you,"' said Breuer. "I really didn't want him to laugh."
Johnson finished with 21 points, but made just six of 22 field goal attempts.
Friday, Johnson found himself with a considerably smaller Jeff Malone guarding him. But Malone also did a good job on the Laker superstar, holding him to 8-of-15 shooting and 20 points - six coming in the last seven minutes when the game was out of reach.
In the first half Johnson could do no better than make three of eight shots for eight points.
The Jazz took all of the suspense out of the matter early. Two minutes into the game, the Jazz were up 7-0, and never trailed.
The Jazz continued a run of marvelous basketball for the week, shooting 57 percent for the first half and bulding their lead to 15 points. Darrell Griffith's 11-point second quarter pulled the Jazz from a 25-23 lead to a 54-39 advantage at the break.
Things went so well for the Jazz in the second period that the frustrated Lakers couldn't even foul effectively. Trying to stop a fast break, Johnson wrapped his hands around John Stockton, but Stockton blew past him for a layup. Johnson held his hands out in disbelief, beckoning for a foul.
"We just were in slow motion," said Johnson. "We just didn't get out like we had in the previous eight games."
While the Lakers struggled to find their momentum, the Jazz continued running people in, all fresh and anxious. Besides the starting five and Griffith, others came on at important junctures. Thurl Bailey, who has struggled with his shooting most of the year, scored 14 points. Delaney Rudd entered to register a pair of jumpers in the early third quarter when L.A. had cut Utah's 16-point lead to 12. The Jazz bench outscored the Lakers' bench 33-11.
The Lakers never got closer than 13 points down in the second half. Utah extended itslead to 20 points in the final quarter, when Karl Malone took a John Stockton pass and hammered in a dunk with 6:20 to go.
Utah's biggest lead was with 50 seconds left on Chris Munk's basket, giving the Jazz a 99-74 lead.
Despite beating up two of the league's best teams in back-to-back games, the Jazz were determined not to get comfortable. Tonight in Los Angeles, they play the Clippers. "It's just as important as any game we've played," said Karl Malone.
Whatever. But as the Jazz concentrated on taking the lowly Clippers seriously, the Lakers did their best to shrug off the effects of having their lowest scoring night of the season.
"It takes awhile to get going. I'm sure when all is said and done, nobody will want to face Utah," said Johnson with a wry smile. "And nobody will want to face us."
GAME NOTES: The win gave Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan his 200th win as a head coach. His six-year career, spanning three in Chicago and over two in Utah, has produced a 200-180 record. As Jazz head coach, his record is 105-59 . . . Utah is 8-1 when holding opponents to under 100 points . . . The Jazz have held opponents to under 100 points in seven of the last nine games, and under 80 points in three of the last seven.