The Jazz are going to their bread-and-butter play again. Karl Malone is posting up low and two Philadelphia 76ers are digging in for the double-team. Malone takes a quick look out of the corner of his eye and then throws a hard pass over his head to Mark Eaton, who has slipped inside for the dunk.
It is a sad fact of life for opposing players, but Eaton is playing some of the best offensive basketball of his career. While he's never going to be accused of being David Robinson down low, Eaton is making the Jazz an even tougher assignment for teams to deal with these days. Double-teaming Malone can have a high price.Going into tonight's 7:30 game in the Salt Palace against Cleveland, Eaton is on a personal-record shooting pace, having made .555 percent of his attempts this year. Recently he has been even better, making 21 of his last 32 attempts (.656) and scoring over his season average in 11 straight contests."Dunks are fine," says Eaton casually. "I think the shots I have been getting make others play us more honest. Now they have to say, Whoa, we can't double team them all the time. They'll have to take us one-on-one."
Eaton's recent effectiveness is the result of several factors - the addition of guard Jeff Malone, the steady passing improvement of Karl Malone, and Eaton's rising ability to get to the basket. Invariably teams will decide to take their chances with Eaton and double down on Karl, who has become increasingly adept at finding Eaton as he cuts to the basket.
Meanwhile, the presence of the other Malone forces the opponents out farther, allowing Eaton more movement inside.
"Karl's passing has always been good," says Eaton, "but we just haven't made good hookups in the past. I would cut a different way than he thought or he would throw where he thought I was going. Now we seem to have a better feel for each other."
A year ago, Eaton had maybe his least productive season since his rookie year in 1982-83. His 4.8 scoring average was the lowest since his rookie year and he played the fewest minutes since his second season. Consequently, his rebound total was the lowest since 1983-84 and his assists and blocks were the lowest of his career.
Although Eaton says he always ran and worked on weights in the off-season, this year he spent more time shooting and playing basketball the month before training camp. "I was always in good physical condition, but I wasn't in the best basketball condition," he says. He adds with a laugh, "After all these years, you'd think I'd figure it out."
If his current pace continues, Eaton will set personal records in field goal percentage and steals. He will also have 220 blocks and 656 rebounds, neither personal records, but both more than last year. Although his rebounds still aren't as high as he would like (8.0), Eaton says that is partly due to the acquisition of Jeff Malone, who is averaging better than three rebounds per game.
Coach Jerry Sloan appears pleased with Eaton's progress. "His whole game is better this year," he says. "He came with the right frame of mind and the right attitude, and wanted to play well."
He continues, "Mark has looked good. He got off to a good start . . . and sometimes guys have a bad year. He's played hard for us."
Eaton's assignment Tuesday will be Brad Daugherty, Cleveland's fifth-year center. Daugherty leads the Cavs with a 21.2 average.
Expected to be a force in the Central Division, the Cavs have been hit hard with injuries. Star guard Mark Price is out for the year after undergoing knee surgery Dec. 4. Mega-millionaire John "Hot Rod" Williams sprained his foot in November and wore a cast until Jan. 2. Winston Bennett has been on the injured list with a back strain. All totaled, players have missed 72 games this year due to injuries.
Cleveland has lost seven straight, including a 108-92 defeat at the hands of Chicago last Saturday. The Cavs are playing the second of five road games and will play four games in the next five nights.
GAME NOTES: The Jazz signed rookie Dan O'Sullivan to a second 10-day contract on Monday. After that expires, the Jazz must either sign him for the remainder of the year or cut him . . . O'Sullivan is averaging three points and two rebounds . . . Utah, 22-10, is now one game ahead of last year's pace, having gone 20-5 since the 2-5 start . . . The Jazz lead the alltime series with Cleveland, 25-23 . . . Last year the teams split their two-game series.