THE HOTTEST TEAM in the NBA this side of Portland hosted Denver Thursday night, where the hottest newly acquired guard this side of Portland will see about an encore.
The Portland Trail Blazers and their 19-1 start to the season may be the center of attention nationally, and the Blazers' new guard, Danny Ainge, may be getting coast-to-coast credit for their hot start. But here in Utah, where the Jazz are rising from their early season slump, a story is emerging that is equally as superlative.After a 3-6 start, the Jazz are suddenly 13-7, meaning they've won 10 of their last 11 games, including their last five in a row. In the NBA, only Portland is as hot.
And an emerging factor in all this win-streaking is the Jazz's new guard, Jeff Malone. Like Ainge in Portland, he is making clutch baskets down the stretch, he is drilling jump shots with All-Star accuracy, and he is providing a dimension the club didn't have a year ago.
"We got another guy who can take over at the end of the game," says Jazz President Frank Layden, adding Malone to a group that is headed by Karl Malone and John Stockton. "We didn't have that before. Against Golden State the other night he just kept matchin' them in the fourth quarter, basket for basket. That's a shooter."
In that Tuesday game against Golden State Malone scored 43 points on 18-of-24 shooting from the field. In the second half he took 13 shots and made 12 of them. Meanwhile, Karl Malone was scoring 35 points on 11-of-18 shooting. The Warriors were going crazy. They didn't know which Malone to guard, the hot one or the hotter one.
"They couldn't sag on me like they used to," says Karl Malone."Now we've got plenty of options at the end of games."
All of this doesn't come as a surprise to the Jazz. They knew they were getting an All-Star in Jeff Malone when they traded Bobby Hansen and Eric Leckner away last summer. They knew he was All-Rookie his first year in the league (1983-84) and they knew he'd made the All-Star game in 1986 and 1987 while with the Washington Bullets. They knew he'd scored at a 20.2 point-per-game pace through seven big league seasons.
"When they asked me (last summer) if I wanted him, I didn't have to think about it," says Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "I said 'yeah, I'm interested.' I'm interested in Michael Jordan too, and Magic Johnson. I'm interested in all those guys."
But Malone did take his own sweet time emerging this season - much like the Jazz as a whole.
Through the first 14 games, as the team was finding its stride, so was the other Malone.
"The big problem was that we couldn't practice," says Sloan. "That trip to Japan (to open the regular season) about wiped us out. We were trying to conserve energy. We went two weeks without normal practice.
"It was very frustrating to me, as a coach. I wanted to practice. But if I had, I honestly think I would have ruined this team for the season."
Only when the jet lag settled, and the Jazz were able to come in from the road, were they able to practice, and to get acquainted with the new guy from Washington.
"When we had a chance to practice, we were able to add a few things, and to work on things we needed to work on," says Sloan. "Teams were trapping us, and we hadn't had a chance to work on that. Things like that. Jeff's a pretty good ball-handler. We put the ball in his hands more. We started to take advantage of him."
When the Jazz came home to start their current mostly home stand this past Dec. 3, Malone really came around. In the five games since - four in the Salt Palace and one at L.A. - he has scored at a 26.2 average while making 60.6 percent of his shots. That's in contrast to a 15.7 scoring average and 44.6 percent accuracy in the first 14 games.
"The points are obvious," says Sloan. "But what we're pleased with is we're not seeing a lot of points from the player he's guarding."
"That's a bonus," adds Layden. "He's better (at defense) than any of us would admit. When we went after him last summer, none of us said, 'Oh yeah, he's a good defender."'
But now they're saying it. They're saying their new guard is everything they expected, and more. The best addition in the west.