The Jazz's plans for a joyous holiday never really got off the ground this past week. The last eight days before Christmas Eve, they were on the road, hanging on for dear life.
There are few chances for celebrating when danger lurks at every turn: Wins over New Jersey, Charlotte and Orlando all were all accepted, but none were especially convincing. Atlanta beat up the Jazz by 18.But the most damaging blow came Sunday night at Miami Arena as the Jazz fell 99-93 to the Miami Heat, a team that lost its previous 10 games.
Predictably, the Jazz weren't in an egg-nog-and-salutations kind of mood afterward. "It's Christmas, and it's not going too good right now," grumped Karl Malone.
Indeed, the Jazz's list of woes was considerable. Coach Jerry Sloan spent the night trying to convince the officials they weren't dealing him a fair hand. The response was two technicals and an early departure. John Stockton, who doesn't stoop to excuses, had an awful 1-for-9 shooting night after spending the day with a stomach ailment. (It was Stockton's missed layup with 15 seconds left that sealed the Jazz's fate.) Jeff Malone got off to a raucous start, scoring 22 points in the first half, but from then on it was Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. He added only a single free throw the rest of the way.
And reserve Pat Cummings had the worst day of all when he discovered he is being released by the Jazz after only eight days with the team (see accompanying story).
The loss to Miami should come as no surprise to anyone. This is the third straight year they have lost to the Heat on the road. Two years ago to the day, when Miami was a first-year fledgling, the Heat beat up the Jazz 101-80. Last season the Jazz's trip to the tropics was spoiled by a 105-104 defeat.
The Jazz, who have been posturing about being one of the elite teams in the NBA, have a bad habit of getting abused by some of the worst teams this side of the CBA.
"We can play with anybody on a given night," began Miami center Rony Seikaly. "And at times, we look like we don't even belong in the NBA."
Although the Jazz knew early they would struggle, they had a good chance to win until 15 seconds were left in the game. Trailing 94-93, they set down plans for their victory sprint. But faced with a swarming Miami defense, they could manage nothing better than Stockton's driving left-hander that fell away. Sherman Douglas was fouled after the Heat got the rebound and made both shots for a three-point lead.
"I just missed it," said Stockton. "There's not much more to say about it."
Stockton followed with a miss on a desperation three-pointer with six seconds remaining, and free throws accounted for the final Miami points.
For their part, the Heat came into the game smarting from the agony 10 straight losses. Like Sonny Crockett, they were in danger of being canceled. Then there was the candid assessment of Philadelphia's Charles Barkley, who declared that "the good teams win here and move on."
"We're not gonna give up," said Miami Coach Ron Rothstein. "That's one thing we're not going to do. Some nights you're gonna be better than others."
Sunday was one of them. Five players scored in double figures, and four of them scored more than their average. Billy Thompson (4.7 ppg) came through with 13 points. Seikaly (17.6) scored 21 and added 14 rebounds (9.6 rpg). Sherman Douglas (14.8) collected 23, and Glen Rice (16.2) added 20.
Perhaps more significant was the play of forward Grant Long, who has started only nine games this year. He chipped in nine points (5.5 ppg) and took down 15 rebounds while playing opposite Karl Malone.
"It's bump and grind, just the way I like it," Long chided one Florida reporter. "You've seen me for three years. You know I thrive on contact. And I can say that with a straight face."
After leading by as many as eight points in the first quarter, the Jazz fell behind by seven in the second, thanks in large part to Long's rebounding and the direction of Douglas at the point. But the Jazz's Jeff Malone was having another of his spells, making everything he put up. His three straight baskets in mid-quarter brought them within one, and a 21-foot baseline shot gave them a 53-52 halftime lead.
The third quarter was a splendid display of poor shooting on both sides. But the Jazz, who were outrebounded badly on the night (46-34), did better the Heat during the third period and established a 79-71 lead.
Miami changed the tone quickly, though, outscoring the Jazz 12-4 in the early fourth quarter as Utah missed its first six shots of the period. Sloan got his first technical with 6:34 to go and Jazz trailing 85-83, when Stockton was knocked down by Thompson, but no foul was called.
"I saw Stockton get wracked in the side of the head, and it's kind of hard not to react to that," Sloan said. The second - his swan song - came with five seconds left in the game.
Karl Malone started slowly, with only eight points in the first half, but the Jazz fed him steadily inside in the second half, and he responded with 17 more. Asked how he felt about the officiating, Malone responded with his own special brand of Season's Greetings. "I don't know how to answer that," he said. "It's Christmas time, and I don't want it spoiled by worrying about that (expletive)."
The Jazz, 17-10, return home Monday and will take Tuesday off before resuming practice Wednesday.
Meanwhile, they'll have a little time to figure out how they can manage to beat the Lakers and Pistons by over 20 points apiece, yet spend a week in the East against five teams - none of whom had a .500 record before the week began - and win only three of five.
"Basketball is a game of life," said Sloan philosophically. "You live and you learn every day." But learning how to beat mediocre teams on the road is a lesson they have yet to commit to memory.
The week back East
The Jazz finished their trip to the East Coast with a 3-2 mark - respectable enough when playing five games in seven nights. However, the three victories were down-to-the-wire wins against the Nets, Hornets and Magic; the defeats were a lopsided loss to the hot-of-late Hawks and Sunday's defeat to the Heat, which had been winless in its previous 10 games.