Now that the Utah Jazz have apparently revived from their mid-season lull, they are back to playing the also-rans of the league - the same kind of people they were having serious trouble with before.
The Jazz, 29-15, have three games left before the All-Star break, and two against poor teams. Tonight in the Salt Palace (7:30) they host the New Jersey Nets, a team with only 14 wins to their credit. Were it not for the Miami Heat, they would be in last place in the Atlantic Division.With New Jersey, Minnesota and Phoenix on the schedule before the break, the Jazz are setting their sights on a strong finish before the All-Star game. "A lot of teams struggle before the break and come back strong. In our situation, we can't afford losses," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "We need as many wins as we can in order to be in position at the end of the season."
As trite as Sloan's assessment may seem, it is accurate. Among the losses that probably shouldn't have happened were defeats at Orlando, Indiana and Denver, and home losses to Indiana and New York. The Jazz record is already two games worse than last year at this time. Since they are already trailing San Antonio by three games, they are determined not to let that lead stretch before the break.
Sloan is among the first to admit the Jazz aren't talented enough to have a bad night and beat many teams. "We've got to play hard every night. Our guys have got to get ready."
For the fourth straight game, the Jazz will be playing without starting guard Jeff Malone, who remains sidelined with a groin pull.
Although the Nets' record is dreary, they do have some talent. Leading the way are 33-year-old Reggie Theus and 23-year-old No. 1 draft pick Derrick Coleman. Theus leads the team with a 19.5 scoring average and Coleman is at 16.7.
Coleman has been a non-stop news story, from the draft, to a preseason holdout, to a reported request to be traded (before the year began), to predictions of greatness. "I am the franchise," he was quoted saying. "If you want somebody who is versatile and can play any position on the court, I'm your man. I don't think there's a player my size who can handle me on the perimeter."
After finally signing him, Coach Bill Fitch, who coached Larry Bird, Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson as rookies, declared Coleman as comparable.
However, Coleman and Theus can't keep the Nets in the race. They've lost four of six and three in a row. The Nets took a hopeful step last week when they acquired Drazen Petrovic from Portland, and he responded with 22 points in a Thursday loss at Denver.