For Utah Jazz fans, these are confusing times. One minute they're watching what could best be described as corned beef hash, the next it's pheasant under glass. One night it's all champagne and roses, the next it's all-you-can eat at the Killer Burger. Neither the Jazz, nor their fans, seem to have any idea these days what to expect.
In the latest Jazz adventure into the unknown, they made a strong case for never looking too far ahead. After leading by seven, they soon found themselves trailing by 23. Just when it was time to hit the lights and call it a disaster, a furious rush at the finish produced an improbable 116-105 win over the Atlanta Hawks, Tuesday in the Salt Palace. It also produced a landslide of quotes about fortitude, determination, courage, adversity and generalbelief in oneself. To their credit, no one broke into a chorus of "The Impossible Dream."
"The thing is, we were down 23 . . . That's almost 30 points. Shoot, the odds on (winning) that are not too great," said Jazz forward Karl Malone.
And so the Jazz added another page to their history, in a performance so unexpected it left Jazz players and coaches struggling to remember when there was a more impressive comeback. "I'm as proud of these guys as much as any time I've coached in basketball," said coach Jerry Sloan. "This is a good example of what can happen if you continue to compete."
For the better part of the game, it didn't appear the Jazz were doing a great job of competing. After establishing a 10-3 lead in the first quarter by making their first five shots, they went into an embarrassing fog that produced just five baskets in their next 21 attempts. Meanwhile, the Hawks were working on a fine shooting display, making 14 of their first 22 attempts. By the mid-second quarter Atlanta had built its lead up to 55-32, thanks largely to 11 offensive rebounds that half.
Having lost three of their previous four games, the Jazz weren't making much progress with their fans, either. At one stage, several spectators put paper bags over their heads - a tactic normally reserved for only the sorriest of teams.
"The amazing part," said Malone, "was the fans booing us and getting down on us. And within a matter of a quarter, they were all up yelling for us."
Trailing by 19 early in the third quarter, the Jazz steadily struggled back. A Darrell Griffith three-pointer nearthe end of the period narrowed Atlanta's lead to 13. But still, the Jazz didn't appear ready to make a reputable run. The 35-year-old Atlanta center Moses Malone was creaking his way around in the middle, on the way to a 10-point, four-rebound night. All-Star Dominique Wilkins was busy figuring out how to get around the double-teams the Jazz threw at him, but still managed 24 points and 14 boards. But somehow, the magic that had produced the great first quarter was fading quickly. The Jazz outscored Atlanta 9-2 to open the fourth period, then went on a 17-0 run that gave the Jazz a 106-99 lead with 2:04 to go.
In the fourth period, virtually every Jazz player that entered, contributed significantly. Griffith, who had three home run baskets on the night, produced nine points in the final quarter, including the tying basket on a layup with 4:53 remaining. Thurl Bailey, who missed his first six shots, hit five of six in the final quarter. John Stockton engineered the end of one of his most impressive games of the season (with 25 points and 19 assists). Karl Malone was wrapping up a 29-point, 16-rebound masterpiece. Center Mark Eaton, among other things, contributed a tip-in and a three-point play with 1:05 to go, keeping the Jazz comfortably ahead, 108-101, and ensuring a Jazz victory.
While the Jazz were making their comeback, the Hawks were in a haze of missed shots, failing to make a field goal for nine minutes. By the time they finally connected, there were only six seconds to go and the Jazz were up by 12 points.
"I don't know. It's just that the last seven minutes was the best I've ever seen us play. That's about the best team effort I've seen us play in a long time," said Malone.
Combined with San Antonio's loss to Houston, the Jazz moved back to within three games of the Spurs in the Midwest Division. They host the Portland Trailblazers, Thursday in the Salt Palace. "I'm looking forward to that," said Malone.
Amid the optimism of the moment, the Jazz were as baffled as anyone as to why teams get hot and cold, without rhyme or reason. "If I could figure that out, I'd be a great coach," said Eaton.
Meanwhile, the ever-introspective Bailey said the Jazz revealed their character. "Tonight showed us a lot about ourselves. Not that you want to get in that situation again, but if we do, we can use what happened tonight as a reminder."
GAME NOTES: Jazz guard Jeff Malone and Atlanta forward Kevin Willis both missed the game due to injuries. Coaches are hopeful Malone can play against Portland, but his status is still questionable . . . Atlanta holds a 28-22 all-time lead over the Jazz, but the Jazz lead 15-10 in Salt Lake . . . Atlanta has lost four straight games.