For some strange reason, the Utah Jazz can never seem to make it easy against the Miami Heat. They can play in Miami, after the Heat had lost 10 straight, and still get beat. They can play them in Salt Lake, with almost 35 percent of the Heat's points being pushed around on a hospital gurney, and almost lose. Wednesday night in the Salt Palace, the Jazz were back to their old tricks, falling behind by as much as 10 points before rallying in the fourth quarter to beat the the Heat, 112-104.
Someone ought to do a psychological profile on this matchup: Midwest contender against the worst team in the Atlantic Division. Throw in the injuries that kept the team's top two scorers, Rony Seikaly and Sherman Douglas out of the game, and what have you got? The makings of a blowout.But this is the Jazz and Miami, the riddle that wouldn't die. Playing the defending world champions is one thing; playing a team you should beat in your street clothes is another. "They're sure tough on us," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan.
"I'm not totally stupid," continued Sloan. "I'm always concerned with teams that have players out. The others want to come in and make a statement. You run into that."
What they actually ran into was second-year guard Glen Rice, who came on to score a season-high 26 points. Vernell "Bimbo" Coles, the replacement in the starting lineup for Douglas, introduced himself with 14 points. The Heat made 52 percent of their shots and out-rebounded the Jazz by five (42-37), coming within a couple of minutes of beating the Jazz in their own house.
"For whatever reason, whether we take them for granted or what, they do play us tough," said the Jazz's Karl Malone. "So for the most part we have to take them one at a time."
Wednesday's game wasn't, of course, Utah's first such problem with the Heat. In three years since Miami came into the NBA, Utah has lost three times. Miami can be dead last in the division - which it is now - and still treat the Jazz badly. The latest episode came on Dec. 23, when the Jazz caught Miami on a 10-game losing streak and the Heat came away with a 99-93 win. This time, with Douglas out with a broken finger and Seikaly with a sprained knee (not to mention Willie Burton's strained back and Terry Davis's injured left foot), Miami was missing an average of 34 points a game (the Heat average only 101.7 points).
"We hung in there tonight and had a chance to win it down the stretch," said Heat Coach Ron Rothstein.
While Miami put on an impressive showing of determination, some of the Jazz's troubles were self-imposed. Sloan's longsuffering belief in belly-up defense was severely tested, as Heat players spent much of the game pulling up for open perimeter jumpers. Asked about the team's defensive effort, Malone retorted, "There wasn't any. There wasn't any defense the whole time except for the last 21/2 minutes."
"We told our players to pick them (Miami) up in the locker room, but it looks like it didn't work, did it?" added Sloan.
The teams battled to a standoff through the final quarter, with neither able to keep the lead. But with the outcome in doubt, the Jazz went to their most effective war machine: Malone. He made five straight inside shots in the final five minutes, the last one a striding banker as he went across the lane that put the Jazz ahead 107-104 with 1:41 left. Malone finished with 40 points and 13 rebounds.
Asked if had any ideas on what it takes to takes to stop Malone, Rothstein replied, "Yeah. A bazooka."
Coles made a shot from the left angle with 2:58 remaining for Miami's final lead. But an offensive foul on rookie Burton with Utah leading by three, followed by a missed three-pointer by Rice with 40 seconds to go, led to the final margin. John Stockton, who had 10 assists in the final period, made four free throws and Jeff Malone another in the last 26 seconds to give the Jazz the final eight-point margin.
In the first half, it was all a Stockton-Malone production, as they totaled 35 of the team's 48 points. Stockton finished with 25 points, 17 assists and made 13 of 14 free throws. Jeff Malone added 17, including a 10-point third quarter.
Besides Rice and Coles, Miami had three others in double figures - Billy Thompson , Kevin Edwards and Burton .
The loss left the Heat optimistic. Despite dropping to 8-22, Miami has beaten Utah, Denver and the Clippers in the last two weeks and played San Antonio well for more than a half. The Heat moves on to play Friday at Seattle while the Jazz await a Friday game at home against Philadelphia.
"We knew the Jazz would make a strong run in the second half, and they did," said Rothstein. "I like the fact that it didn't happen like an avalanche. We hung in there, and hung in there, and had a chance to win it with two minutes to go."
Game Notes: Stockton's 17 assists put him eight away from passing Dennis Johnson for 15th place on the alltime assist list. . .Free throws were the Jazz's key as they made 35 of 41. . .Thurl Bailey, who has played in 600 games, needs 62 points to reach the 9,000-point mark . . . John Stockton didn't practice Thursday morning with the team due to a pulled hamstring, but is not expected to miss Friday's contest against Philadelphia. Stockton dressed for Thursday's practice but only watched from the sidelines.