Playing against the featured team of the '91 season, the Portland Trail Blazers themselves, the best team this side of the Willamette River, the best team this side of the '72 Lakers, the Utah Jazz looked anything but impressed last night in the Salt Palace. The Jazz beat the Blazers by the most points they've been beaten by all season in a 105-91 win that had all the artistic appeal of a walk through Compton.
Rarely have the Jazz won uglier, which is to say with better defense. How good was the defense? Good enough to cause Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan to say, "We played good defense." For a coach like Sloan, who thinks fluoride is a bit soft, good defense is the Holy Grail.And yet, there was Sloan, standing in the interview room, saying, "Last week we couldn't guard anybody. Then we went back to basics and we beat Atlanta (Tuesday night) with good defense at the end, and in this game we played good defense again."
The way the Jazz got back to basics was with a two-hour, hyper-intensive practice this past Monday that was a drill sergeant's dream.
On the Saturday night previous, the Jazz had lost to Denver, 120-115, granting the Nuggets their first win of the season over a team with a winning record.
Then came the Monday practice.
"I think you could say that it was that practice that got us back to thinking defense," said Jazz center Mark Eaton, who had 10 points, 13 rebounds and two blocked shots against Portland.
The second half of Tuesday's win over Atlanta - as the Jazz overcame a 23-point deficit - got them back to playing defense.
The Portland game was more of the same.
The fact that this was the Story of the Year team did not matter.
The Blazers brought a seven-game winning streak with them. They brought a two-game road winning streak. And of course they brought their 37-7 record with them - a record that, coming in, was on pace to break the NBA all-time best 69-13 record posted by the Lakers in 1971-72 (going out, the Blazers' record of 37-8, .822 dipped them below the .841 percentage needed to stay on record pace. At this altitude, one loss is a lot).
This was a team that has outscored opponents by an average of 10.9 points since the season began - a margin that would, if maintained over a full season, rank third on the all-time list.
Furthermore, the Blazers were rested. They hadn't played since last Saturday, a home win over Atlanta. Their only alibi was the absence of starting forward Jerome Kersey, out with a strained calf muscle.
"The Jazz were active, they were aggressive," said Portland Coach Rick Adelman. "We were just the opposite.
"Offensively, that's the worst we've struggled in a while," said Portland reserve center Wayne Cooper. "We just didn't play, and they did."
The Blazers shot 37.8 percent from the field, far below their 49.5 percent season average - also far below the 45.8 percent average the Jazz have allowed their opponents.
"We stood around too much," said Adelman. "We were bad, they were good."
"This is the type of game you fear," said Portland guard Danny Ainge. "Utah's been struggling, we're on a roll, and we come here, on their court, and our effort was there, but something was missing."Most of the Blazers' shots.
"Bad game," said Ainge. "We went to sleep. We allowed John Stockton to do basically whatever he wanted. Plus, we weren't getting the benefit of the low-post calls."
An ugly game, in other words. Ugly enough to end up good-looking for the Jazz.
"I think the guys just started to realize again that you have to play defense," said Sloan, who admitted he's still enthused over Tuesday's win over Atlanta.
"The best win I ever had was the other night, against Atlanta," he said. "I'm as excited about that game as any game I've ever coached in. I don't believe in `quit.' And in that game we didn't quit. That was as rewarding as any game I've ever been in."
The aftershocks of which were enough to send the winningest team in the NBA to its ugliest loss of the year Thursday night in the Salt Palace.