Aside from all the monster slams, flashy passes and shot-rejections that have taken place in the past three days, there seems to be an overriding theme regarding the Jazz-Spurs series: Don't tell me what to do on my turf.
Last Saturday night, the Spurs ran away with a thorough 20-point win over the Jazz in San Antonio. Tuesday in the Salt Palace, it was another matter. Guard John Stockton turned in a franchise-high 28 assists and added 20 points, while Karl Malone contributed 32 points and 18 rebounds as the Jazz wiped out the Spurs, 124-102."Both teams seem to be sending a message here, which is they aren't going to be messed with on their home court," said Spurs' guard Willie Anderson.
For the two best teams in the Midwest Division, there certainly is enough proof to support Anderson's theory. So far this year, the Jazz have won both games in the Salt Palace and lost the only game at HemisFair Arena. All totaled, the Spurs have now won five straight in San Antonio against the Jazz and Utah has won a whopping 14 in a row in the Salt Palace.
"They got us pretty good here, kind of a changing of the whippings," added San Antonio's David Robinson.
Despite the obvious intensity of this rivalry, it remains fairly free of posturing and name-calling. Although the Spurs ran off a string of circus passes at the end of last weekend's game, and Jazz guard Jeff Malone paused momentarily during a timeout to wave his arms in supplication to the crowd in Salt Lake City, this series seems to be notably long on determination and short on woofing. "You're going to get beat like that sometimes," said Malone. "You've just got to come back the next night. I don't get caught up in that revenge stuff. There was no payback. You just come back and see what happens."
What happened on Tuesday was part highlight, part history and part concern over an injury. The highlights included several spectacular dunks by Robinson and the Jazz's Blue Edwards and Karl Malone. Robinson's best effort was a couple of two-hand slams that left the rim quivering long after. Edwards threw in back-to-back dunks in the third quarter that boosted Utah's lead to 11 and weakened the Spurs' resolve considerably. And, naturally, there were the requisite hammer-slams by Karl Malone.
History was made through Stockton's 28 assists, which eclipsed his personal record of 27 and was two short of the NBA record.
The games darkest moment came when Karl Malone went to the floor after being poked in the eye by Robinson. Malone returned to the game but afterward left the dressing room with his eye patched (see accompanying story).
Most of the night, though, belonged to Stockton. By the end of the half, he had almost equaled his season average, having registered 13 assists. He set his his season-high mark with his 24th of the game on a pass to Karl Malone for a slam with 6:53 to go in the contest; the record 28th came on a bounce-pass to Malone for a dunk with 1:08 to go.
Stockton was lifted with a minute left in the game, along with the other starters. "I was aware of it (his assist mark) when Delaney (Rudd) told me on the way out as I left the game," said Stockton. He also finished with 20 points and eight steals.
"Stockton might have beaten us by himself," said Spurs coach Larry Brown.
Other key performances included Jeff Malone's 26 points. Mark Eaton, who missed the last two games with a viral infection, played 30 minutes, registering eight points and four rebounds. As to how well he felt on the court, Eaton replied, "Fair to middlin'. I had no leg strength."After struggling through a close first half, the Jazz moved ahead 56-51 at half, thanks to a pair of 18-footers by Jeff Malone. But outcome wasn't sealed until the third period, when Jeff Malone's eight points, Karl Malone's six rebounds and Stockton's five assists opened the way to a 70-59 lead. Consecutive dunks - all off Stockton assists - by Eaton and two by Edwards, put the Jazz ahead 70-59.
Darrell Griffith buried two straight home run baskets in the early fourth period to boost the Jazz lead to 17. The lead got as high as 25 before the final buzzer.
Now that both teams have established themselves as bullies in their own yards, the remaining schedule becomes an issue. The next time they meet is Feb. 18 in Salt Lake City, followed by the finale on March 11 in San Antonio. After that - which will be the remaining six weeks of the season - they will have to rely on outside help decide who wins the Midwest Division title.
"After the butt-kicking we had there, we came back hard," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "I think that's an indication these guys don't want to concede anything."
Robinson, who led the Spurs with 26 points, nine rebounds and three blocks, had only praise for the way the Jazz came back. "They know that we are their primary competition in the Midwest, so you have to give them a lot of credit, because they really took it to us." Should things remain constant, they can expect the same treatment the next time they come to Salt Lake . . . and vice versa.