The Mailman emerged from the dressing room with a strange look on his face. "Funny," he muttered rhetorically. "I coulda sworn we lost."
Moments before, as a desperation New Jersey tip-in fell away at the buzzer, assistant coach Gordon Chiesa looked up at the scoreboard and said tersely, "That's a win."One could hardly blame them for struggling to make the distinction. After losing last Saturday night to Indiana, the Jazz continued their perilous run through a hit parade of also-rans, hanging on to stop the New Jersey Nets, 100-98 at Meadowlands Arena.
For the second time in three days, the Jazz appeared unable to live with the prosperity they enjoyed for the previous three weeks, when they won six in a row. Now they're on the road and liable to have trouble with everyone. With Charlotte coming up tonight, one can only wonder what new problems could arise against a team that's in sixth place in the Central Division.
The Jazz monster that ran over Detroit and embarrassed the Lakers is nowhere to be seen these days. Jeff Malone's blistering shooting streaks have cooled down considerably (though he still totaled 17 points against the Nets). For Karl Malone, the non-stop string of designated tough guys continues, with no relief in sight. But this time, he came out worse for the wear, fouling out with 3:03 left to go after spending the evening striking a series of wrestling poses with New Jersey's Sam Bowie and Derrick Coleman. And the reknowned Jazz defense only faintly resembled its former self.
"We were just flat tonight," said Jazz center Mark Eaton.
From the moment the game began, it was obvious this was not a typical Jazz contest. For starters, they were playing to an underwhelming crowd of about 5,000 besieged Nets' fans, who have watched as their team lost 13 games this year. (The official announcement of 9,386 in attendance appeared to be grossly exaggerated). Second, New Jersey - hardly a name to strike terror in anyone's heart - sent five substitutes into the game, and they, as much as anyone, nearly sent the Jazz off with a loss. Third, the Jazz were doing a poor job of operating their main plan of attack: going down low to Karl.
So on a night when everthing else was unusual, so was the finish. The all-important last-minute points came not from the standard trio of John Stockton, Jeff Malone or Karl Malone. The clinchers came compliments of Mark Eaton and Thurl Bailey, a pair usually assigned to Best Supporting Actor roles.
"You just hope at one point you'll get it together," said Bailey.
Utah had seen its lead wax and wane throughout the night, never getting to larger than 12, and vanishing totally several times.
Karl, who picked up his sixth foul with just over three minutes to go, was sulking on the bench. As the game moved into its final 1 1/2 minutes, the Nets were within two points and waiting to make their run.
But Bailey hit a layup with 1:18 to go and Jeff Malone's steal set up a dunk shot by Eaton 27 seconds later. The Nets' Chris Morris hit a three-pointer, but then Eaton tipped in a shot with 19 seconds remaining, to give the Jazz a 100-95 lead.
After what they'd been through all game, everyone knew it still wasn't over. Morris made two free throws, closing the lead to three. Then after a backcourt call on the Jazz, Stockton wisely fouled Mookie Blaylock with four-tenths of a second to go, making sure he didn't get off a three-pointer to tie the game.
Blaylock hit the first and deliberately missed the second. However, Reggie Theus caught the rebound and put back a desperation tip as the buzzer sounded, and the Jazz had escaped with the win.
Predictably, the Jazz coaching staff wasn't doing cartwheels. For the second game in a row, the Jazz had managed to make a bad team look decent, thanks in large part to a horrendous 28 turnovers. But leaving New Jersey behind with a loss was far better than the alternative.
"Pretty sloppy," said Karl. "But we have to count the loss if we lose, so we'll take the win."
Although Morris led the Nets with 19, it was the New Jersey bench thatmade the difference. Utah had built a 64-52 lead in the mid-third quarter when Coach Bill Fitch abandoned his original plan, sending in Jud Beuchler, Derrick Gervin, Jack Haley, Chris Dudley and Kurk Lee, none of them starters. The subs then prceeded to score nine unanswered points, to pull the Nets within three. They finished out the quarter trailing the Jazz by only 76-72.
Fitch left his subs in for about 3 1/2 minutes in the final quarter before going back to his starters for the stretch run.
The win moved the Jazz, 15-8, toward the second leg of a five-game, seven-day string of road games before Christmas. Following tonight's contest at Charlotte, they will take a day of before playing Atlanta, Orlando and Miami.
"This takes the sting out (of losing to Indiana)," continued Malone, "but I don't think we played great." Which really didn't seem to matter on a night when they were just lucky to win.
GAME NOTES: The Jazz had eight turnovers in the first quarter alone . . . Utah has now gone 13-3 since the 2-5 start . . . The Jazz have held the opposition to below 50 percent shooting in 13 of the last 14 games.