With an important run through the wild, wild West rapidly approaching, the one thing the Utah Jazz wanted badly Tuesday night was somebody to get them off to a good start. And who better than the Cleveland Cavaliers, that piecemeal team that is taking up all the space at Cleveland General.
Surely the Cavaliers would roll over and die. Certainly they would pose no problem. But, of course, they didn't. Despite being several players shy of respectability, Cleveland hung with the Jazz for 2 1/2 quarters. A furious 25-5 run in the third period ended all doubt, though, as the Jazz went on to claim a 110-88 victory.Now the Jazz have another problem. Just about 24 hours later, they are scheduled for a 8:30 p.m. (MST) tipoff in Los Angeles against the Lakers. That is followed by a Friday game at Dallas and a Saturday game at San Antonio. The three-game, five-day trip stands as a pivotal one in the Jazz's plans to usurp the Midwest Division title from the Spurs.
If nothing else, this week should serve to make the Jazz appreciate health care in America. The Cavaliers - who have had 75 player games missed due to injuries this year - have Mark Price, John Williams and Winston Bennett out with injuries, making what was supposed to be a fine team into a sad one. Tuesday night's loss was Cleveland's eighth in a row.
However, Tuesday wasn't the Jazz's last date with the injured and maimed. The Lakers are missing a star player, Magic Johnson, who is on a day-by-day basis, having skipped the last two games with an injured finger. And Dallas is still hurting without Fat Lever, Roy Tarpley and Herb Williams, who have gone down with injuries.
For better than half the game, the Cavaliers looked like a truly healthy team, even without Price, Williams, etc. Cleveland jumped out to not only a brief first-half lead (37-35 and 41-37) but also took control of the boards, collecting an impressive 11 offensive rebounds.
While the Cavs were enjoying a spark of life, the Jazz were having some problems. In the first 20 minutes, they took 20 perimeter shots, making just eight. When they went inside, they scored easily. But for some peculiar reason, they preferred to take their chances with hasty shots from the perimeter.
"I'm always concerned when we take shots like that," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "That's not our first option every time down the floor."
The Jazz kept things from getting out of hand - after being outscored 11-3 in one run - by sending Jeff Malone back into the game with 5:33 left in the half. He promptly scored six straight points to pull the Jazz into a 41-41 tie. John Stockton's driving shot with 38 seconds to go gave Utah a 43-41 halftime lead.
Early in the second half, the Cavs built a 53-49 lead by outscoring Utah 10-4 and going primarily to center Brad Daugherty and guard Craig Ehlo for their points. But Daugherty soon found himself hemmed in by Mark Eaton and Karl Malone. Although he got 12 points for the game, only two came in the final 16 minutes.
"It was really strange being double-teamed. It was different," said Daugherty. "The biggest double team I've ever seen . . . Eaton causes enough problems by himself. I told Karl, `You guys don't need to do this.' He just started laughing." For most of the night, though, Cleveland's most reliable commodity was reserve Henry James, who pumped in 21 points.
The Malones led what would be the clinching charge, scoring nine points apiece in the third period. The Jazz effectively put the game away with a 25-5 run.
Jeff, who led the Jazz with 28 for the game, boosted the lead to 16 points with a drifting basket, followed by a free throw, near the end of the period.
It was a customarily streaky night for Jeff, who began the game missing four of his first six shots, then made 11 of the next 14.
"I don't worry about shooting. With the confidence I have now, I know I can come back and make six or seven in a row," he said. "When I get to my spots, I have a lot of confidence I can hit it."
The Jazz finished the quarter ahead 79-65.
Jeff added another run of points in the mid-fourth quarter, scoring three straight baskets and a free throw to build the Jazz lead to 97-78 with 4:39 left. Shortly after, the reserves began arriving to finish up.
By the time the game was over and the Jazz had won going away, the closeness of the first half had nearly been forgotten. But not quite. Nobody likes to be frightened by a hospital ward.
"It seems like we have to let a team hang with us before we make a run. We can't be happy with the way we started out," said Karl.
But nobody's complaining. They're all healthy. And as they say in the recovery rooms, if you've got your health, you've got everything. Or at least you've got a better record to show for it.
Game Notes:The Jazz's six-game win streak equals their longest of the season . . . Thurl Bailey needs 42 points to reach 9,000 for his career . . . Mark Eaton has made 24 of his last 35 shots.