Remember the Indiana Pacers? Bad self-image. Eleven straight road losses. Dead last in the Central Division. Coach on the rocks. Those Indiana Pacers? Well, nobody was answering to that description Saturday night in the Salt Palace. Pacer Coach Dick Versace pointed Reggie Miller and Chuck Person in the direction of the basket, pushed the start button, and sat back to watch as the Pacers beat the Jazz, 124-116.
The suddenly happy Pacers were feeling no pain after breaking their losing streak. With the Jazz headed east Sunday for a five-game swing down the coast, the mood was one of sobriety. But in the Pacers' locker room, it was another matter. Indiana moves on to play the Lakers, Sunday night in The Forum."L.A. - the City of Stars," said Miller dreamily. "And baby, we feel good."
Certainly, nobody was feeling better than Miller. He and Person did more damage to the Jazz than anyone in the last two weeks. That, of course, was the last time the Jazz lost, when they fell to Portland on the road.
But the Jazz team that won six in a row wasn't in attendance at the Salt Palace Saturday night. After weathering the high-speed onslaughts of Golden State and Denver this week, the Pacers weren't supposed to pose any serious problems.
With the Jazz having won 11 of their previous 12 games and and playing at home - where they had beaten the Pacers the previous five times - this one didn't size up to be one the game of the week. The Jazz came into the contest with an upbeat mood. They'd been playing well, Christmas was approaching and they had acquired a veteran player during the day, Pat Cummings, to give them more stability at the power forward position.
Meanwhile, the mood with the Pacers was considerably more subdued. Indiana came in with an 8-14 record, mired in last place in the Central Division. Rumors abounded that Coach Dick Versace would be fired soon.
But it was obvious once the game began that it was the Jazz who would be having problems. Their much-acclaimed defense wasn't exactly the Great Wall. Indiana bolted to a 19-10 lead before the Jazz realized the game had begun.
"Our defense just wasn't good enough tonight," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan.
Even after overtaking the Pacers 11 minutes into the game, the Jazz didn't look well. Through the first half they took a fairly steady stream of poor shots. Although they went to the free throw line 23 times in the second period, their problems spilled over there too, as the Jazz missed eight times.
Utah led 30-26 at the quarter and 67-64 at half.
"We were concerned at half, because they had 64 points," said Sloan. "It was a situation where I didn't think our bodies were alive and it looked like we were struggling. They just beat us."
Not that the Jazz didn't have their chance. Karl Malone's left-side jumper with 6:34 to go in the half put the Jazz up 49-40. But just 2 1/2 minutes later, Miller sank two free throws, and the Pacers were leading 54-53.
Utah moved ahead by nine in the third quarter, but couldn't sustain the lead. Mike Sanders' steal and an ensuing basket by Michael Williams with :26 seconds left gave the Pacers an 89-88 lead going into the final period. The Jazz pulled ahead 100-94 early in the fourth quarter, but that was before Miller and Person got their final summons. Miller scored on two breakaway shots to close the Jazz lead to two. Then came three straight home run shots (Person-Miller-Person) and the Jazz were down 107-100 with 5:38 to go.
"We waited until about six minutes to go, and by then the game was already past us," said Sloan.
The Jazz tied the score with 1:55 remaining, but Greg Dreiling made two free throws, Person banked in a jumper and Karl Malone missed a layup for the Jazz. Person added a three-pointer with :52 seconds to go, to put the game out of reach.
Person finished with 35 points on 14-for-21 shooting, while Miller added 23 points.
Afterward, Versace sounded like a man who had been granted a stay of execution. "I want to just praise my own team in working (its) way through a very, very, very difficult stretch - as far as our road record is concerned. I never lost faith in this team and we're getting better," he said.
Meanwhile, the Jazz were taking the loss philosophically. You can't win them all, even when you're at home.
"We played poorly and Indiana played great," said Jazz center Mark Eaton. "They're not going to lose all their road games."
GAME NOTES:The Jazz rank third in the league in defense going into Saturday's game, allowing 98.5 points a game . . . They held 12 straight opponents under 50 percent shooting until Indiana shot 51 percent . . . Thurl Bailey has played in 286 straight games, the NBA's fifth-longest consecutive streak . . . Blue Edwards expects to wear his protective mask on this road trip, before discarding it for good.