If it is mid-December, then this must be New Jersey. Or Boston. Or Washington. Or New York. Yes, it's Christmastime again, and that can mean only one thing to the Utah Jazz: a long run through the eastern United States.
The Jazz began a five-game, seven-day trip Monday against the New Jersey Nets. The game will be aired at 5:30 (MST) on Channel 13. That contest will be followed by games at Charlotte (Tuesday), Atlanta (Thursday), Orlando (Saturday) and Miami (Sunday).For the record, the annual swing to the East has almost never been a holly-jolly experience for the Jazz. In the past six years they have had a December trip each time, and only once have they emerged with more than two wins. More often, it is an experience like last year, when they beat Minnesota and Charlotte, but lost to New York, Boston and San Antonio.
All totaled, the Jazz have only a 10-21 record on their pre-Christmas swings in the past six years, and four of them came the same year. In 1986-87 the Jazz went 4-2, beating Washington, Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia. The only losses were to Detroit and New Jersey.
The worst year was 1988-89, in which the Jazz went 1-5 on the road, beating lowly Washington and losing to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and, incredily, Miami (101-80).
"To go on the road is no easy job," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "It's tough playing wherever you are. It's something you have to be aware of, with every team."
Sloan continued, "From one standpoint, you say these are teams we could beat. But like Indiana (a surprise winner over the Jazz Saturday night in Salt Lake City), teams are trying to get a win. If you have no intensity when you play those people, you're in big trouble."
How much trouble the Jazz are in remains to be seen. Going into Saturday night's game with the Pacers, they were playing their best basketball of the year, having won six in a a row and 11 of 12. But against the Pacers, the Jazz appeared sluggish and unmotivated. "Our defense just wasn't good enough," Sloan said.
All things considered, though, the Jazz defense has been nothing to sniff at. They are ranked third in the league in points allowed. Mark Eaton is among the top five shot-blockers in the league. Jeff Malone has infused suprising defensive awareness since coming from Washington in June. And John Stockton and Karl Malone are contributing as much on defense as they are on offense.
"A big key for us now is to come out on the road and pick up our concentration again and get it together," said center Mark Eaton.
The Jazz's (14-8) report through one-fourth of the season looks like this: second in the Midwest Division standings; third in the league in scoring defense; and second-best in field goal percentage allowed to the opposition. But they are also only 18th in rebounding percentage. And just six teams are averaging more turnovers a game than the Jazz.
Meanwhile, the Nets, who lost 125-104 to New York on Saturday, have lost two straight. But they are 6-5 at home and 8-13 overall, good enough for fourth place in the Atlantic Division.
The Nets have been slowed by an ankle injury to Derrick Coleman, the No. 1 pick in the draft last June. Coleman did play against the Knicks, but scored only five points in their last outing. However, veteran Reggie Theus took up the slack, totaling 36 points.