Remember the Portland Trail Blazers? You know, bridesmaid-of-the-year, June, 1990. First cousin to the World Champion Detroit Pistons. President-elect to the NBA throne. No? Apparently the Utah Jazz have no such recollections. Thursday night in the Salt Palace, the Jazz met the team with the best record in the league, and walked away with a 105-91 win.
Strange dealings from a Jazz team that in the last two weeks found itself losing to lowly Indiana, New York and Denver and struggling to beat Sacramento. As recently as Tuesday night, the Jazz had lost three of their previous four games, all against teams well on the sad side of .500. But that night the Jazz bungled their way through more than half a game, only to roar back from a 23-point deficit to beat Atlanta 116-105.For the better part of two weeks, the Jazz were abysmal; but in the last five quarters, they have been phenomenal.
"A crazy business," said Jazz center Mark Eaton. "I have no explanations. Figure that out, you could go 82-0."
By all prior indications, the Jazz went into Thursday's game with the likelihood of ending their most recent winning streak at one. For a team that seemed to be having trouble putting anything more serious than their shoelaces together, the people they didn't need to see was the Trail Blazers.
For their part, the Blazers have spent the entire first half of the season terrorizing the league, winning their games by an average margin of 11 points. It wasn't enough that they went to the NBA finals last year. In the off-season they picked up Danny Ainge - currently leading the league in three-point shooting - and began the year where they left off, winning their first 11 games without so much as pausing to take a breath. Then, just when people were hoping they might wear themselves out, they acquired veteran Walter Davis last week, giving them a lineup so formidable that Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan said you could divide the team in half, and both would make a solid NBA squad.
"They got two teams over there in that locker room," said All-Star Jazz forward Karl Malone.
But neither of the Blazers' teams was ready for what happened in the Salt Palace. The Jazz hunkered into one of their more intent spells of defense all year, particularly in the first half, and before long they had Portland in trouble.
It appeared from the opening tipoff that the Jazz had done their homework well. Eaton, matched up against All-Star center Kevin Duckworth, wasted no time, scoring five points and dominating the inside with eight rebounds in the first quarter. "When Karl (Malone) shot the ball they would try to go over and help on him," said Eaton. "It kind of left the door open for me."
At the same time, the Jazz were settling into a pattern they would follow through the evening, spreading the points evenly across the board. The Jazz scored the last eight points of the period to take a 29-20 lead, and held back the Blazers by swarming at them in waves. "Interesting things happen to us when we play defense," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan.
By halftime, the Blazers were obviously in trouble. Their shooting percentage had flattened out at 38 percent. All-Star Clyde Drexler was expending considerable energy taking outside shots, and from there his luck wasn't holding. "We missed a lot of shots and they played very aggressively," said Blazer Coach Rick Adelman.
With Drexler off and fellow All-Star Terry Porter out after just nine minutes of play with an ankle sprain, even the deep Blazers were misfiring on some cylinders. Another starter, forward Jerome Kersey, didn't even make the trip, due to a strained calf muscle.
Although the Blazers obviously weren't whole, the same could be said for the Jazz. For the third straight game, Utah went with Andy Toolson as a starting guard, replacing Jeff Malone, who has been out with a groin pull. Afterward Malone endured jibes from teammates and associates who kidded that the Jazz really don't need him after all.
"We're 2-2 without me (this year)," Malone shot back, "but we're 27-13 when I'm there."
The Jazz shot 52 percent for the second quarter, boosted by Thurl Bailey's 10-point run, to end the half ahead 55-42.
Although the Jazz lead got as high as 19 points, they weren't able to shake Portland until the final minutes. The Blazers, bolstered by Davis' work off the bench, whittled the Jazz lead down to nine in the early fourth quarter, and stayed within 12 before the clock began to figure in. John Stockton's left-handed scoop shot and free throw with 4:46 remaining put the Jazz ahead 94-78. Utah began shipping in the substitutes with 1:41 left, the lead having shot up to 100-83.
The Jazz had six players in double figures, Malone and Stockton leading the way with 24 and 20 respectively. Thurl Bailey and Darrell Griffith played important parts with 18 and 12 points, respectively. Eaton finished with 13 rebounds.
Utah improved to 29-15 and the Blazers dropped to 37-8.