It was strangely familiar to five weeks ago: Orlando Arena, the Jazz and Magic in a tooth-and-nail fight down the stretch. The Magic refusing to let the Jazz extend their narrow lead. Trouble coming. Who you gonna call?
The Mailman. Naturally.Karl Malone scored nine of his game-high 34 points in the final 3:40 as the Jazz held on to beat Orlando 104-96, Saturday night.
"Karl was a monster down the stretch," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan.
By all accounts, it was a quintessential Mailman delivery: 34 points, 40 minutes, 14 rebounds. But the timing of Malone's final run brought sighs of appreciation from Sloan, although he has seen this scene many times before. But since it's Christmas, this is as good time as any to express your appreciation:
"He took the game on his back at that point," said Sloan. "Karl has done that so many times. We're not always fair because he's done it so many times and always gives that great effort."
As the final minutes unfolded, it appeared the Jazz were again having more trouble than they deserved from a team that is holding down last place in the Midwest Division. But the Jazz had no reason to consider the Magic anything but dangerous. When they met the first time this year, in November, the Magic carried out a 102-99 overtime win at Orlando Arena. Five days later, when they came to the Salt Palace, they led early in the game before Utah came back to claim a hard-fought 106-91 win.
Then there was matter of Utah's latest outing. After making 50 percent or better of their shots in 8 of 10 games, they dropped well below that (43 percent) on Thursday in Atlanta. The defense - Utah's pride and joy - was beginning to look suspicious. The results? Atlanta 105, Utah 87 in what was likely their worst performance of the the year.
Orlando stayed close to the Jazz throughout, never falling behind by more than eight and even taking the lead momentarily in the first quarter. Although the Jazz led the rest of the way, Orlando never showed any intentions of fading.
Part of the reason for the Magic's strong effort this time was the result of another career night by guard Scott Skiles. Although he has rarely been considered a major problem, lately he has been doing a good Byron Scott imitation. On Thursday he got a career high 31 against Houston and Saturday he topped that with 34 against the Jazz.
Whatever Skiles was able to do offensively, though, couldn't offset what the Jazz were doing with Malone. He began his stretch run on a spinning three-point play inside that boosted the Jazz lead to 94-89. Fifteen seconds later he hit a 15-foot jumper with Greg Kite pawing at his arm, to give the Jazz a 96-91 lead.
"Out of every shot I took tonight, I knew that one would go in," said Malone.
The Jazz, who scored on their last 12 possessions, built the lead to 99-91 with 1:46 to go, and held the Magic off in the final minute by making six straight free throws.When the game had ended and the Mailman had retired to the dressing room, he called it just another night at the office. Greg Kite had spent part of the time leaning on him and Terry Catledge left a six-inch scratch down the inside of his forearm. But Malone was feeling no pain. "My wife doesn't scratch me like that," he said.
Although both teams played reasonably well in the first half, neither seemed ready to seize the moment. Utah got up as far as 16-9, thanks to Jeff Malone's quick-shooting start, but Orlando closed within one. The Jazz pulled ahead by eight near the end of the half, thanks to an 8-0 run, but led by only five, 49-44 at the break.
But when the Jazz decided they needed some serious scoring, they went to their most reliable commodity: the Mailman inside.
"Karl Malone didn't have but, what, about 10 points at the half , and he just picked it up a notch," said Orlando's Nick Anderson. "That's why they pay him $3 million a year - because he delivers."
Meanwhile, the Jazz, who don't play Orlando again until March 4, will have plenty of time to ponder just why a team that has now lost eight in a row, continues to give them nightmares.
"Everybody plays us hard," said Sloan. "I don't know anybody that doesn't."
With Miami - who has lost 10 straight games - coming up, that statement should be put to the test tonight.
GAME NOTES: Magic guard Dennis Scott has made more 3-point field goals than anyone in the NBA . . . Orlando waived rookie free agent forward Howard Wright and activated Sam Vincent on Saturday, but Vincent didn't play . . . Utah has gone 15-4 since opening the season with a 2-5 record . . . Utah has held opponents under .500 shooting in 20 of 26 games and 15 of the last 16 . . . The Jazz are 3-2 in their series with the Magic . . . Utah had a season-low 11 turnovers . . . Utah's win coupled with the Spurs' loss to Milwaukee cut San Antonio's Midwest Division lead to 11/2 games.