Long ago and far away - 6,000 miles and three months, to be exact - the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns embarked on the NBA season. It was on a foreign court for both teams - very foreign - and each won a game. Now, after not seeing each other for months, they are back at one another's throats again, resuming a rivalry that becomes more interesting each time around.
Wednesday night in the Salt Palace, the old rivals met and, true to form, played another game filled with emotion and fire. There were fine performances by marquee players. There were torrid scoring runs and anemic slumps. And when it had all finally wound down, the Jazz had put together a 103-99 win over the Suns, giving them something pleasant to remember for the next five days during the All-Star break.It seems like years since these Western opponents last saw one another. The first week in November, in Tokyo, they opened the season in a history-making, two-game series. Since then, Phoenix and Utah have followed remarkably similar paths. The Jazz go into the break with a 31-16 record, having struggled to overcome the slow start that resulted from playing their first two games thousands of miles away from home. Meanwhile, Phoenix has been equally bewitched by the odd beginning, building a 30-16 record and losing to such non-concerns as the L.A. Clippers, New Jersey, Indiana, Sacramento and Houston.
And both are still wondering, if not aloud at least privately, how things would have differed had they began the year in the good old U.S. of A.
"It really does seem like a long time since we played," said Phoenix guard Kevin Johnson. "We went through a stretch last year where it seemed like we played each other every day. We're used to seeing each other on a regular basis. Now it's been a couple of months and it seems like a long time went by."
Added Jazz center Mark Eaton, "It will be debated until the end of the year: What effect the Japan trip had."
However perceived or real the effect of the trip was, not much has changed between the two teams since last November. Kevin Johnson returned to the Salt Palace to prove he had lost nothing since his last appearance. Wednesday night he scored a game-high 30 points, running the Suns' offense with commanding presence. Jeff Hornacek showed he is still more than the Jazz can handle outside, tossing in 25 points.
Perhaps the only true disappointment for the Suns this time came from the forwards. Tom Chambers, who can score points in rapid succession, had a coolish 7-for-17 night and 14 points, seven below his average. Xavier McDaniel, a December acquisition for the Suns, only managed six points.
As for the Jazz, it was the usual: Karl Malone and John Stockton, with the Jazz's fortunes rising and falling with them. Jeff Malone, the Jazz's 1990-91 contribution to the weapons' buildup, spent the night on the bench in a cardigan sweater and slacks, resting a pulled groin muscle.
In large, part the outcome boiled down to the one-on-one matchup between Stockton and Johnson - two classic guards, locked in an endless struggle. For moments it would appear Johnson would get the upper hand, only to see Stockton up the ante with a crucial play. When all was finished, Johnson had turned in 30 points, seven assists and three steals; Stockton had 22 points, 15 assists and four steals.
"It is a team game," said Johnson, "but there are some individual challenges that we all enjoy, and John Stockton is certainly one of the better players in this league . . . I think the way both of us measure our success is if his team wins. He outplayed me, and if my team wins, I outplayed him. When you don't win, you haven't done your job, pure and simple . . . . We'll be going at it for years to come and I just hope our team wins more than his."
For most of the night, it was unclear just whose team would win. The Jazz got off to a rousing 17-8 start in the first quarter, led by Karl Malone's five early points. Although the Jazz led by eight going into the second period, Phoenix suddenly began to accelerate its pace. By controlling the boards, they soon turned an eight-point deficit to a 42-34 lead, outscoring the Jazz 22-6. Utah shot only 27 percent for the quarter. By the midway point, the Jazz had managed to narrow the Suns' lead to five.
As quickly as the momentum turned the first time, it changed again in the third period as the Jazz rang up 34 points. Although Johnson got 15 points in the quarter, he was nearly all the offense Phoenix had. Meanwhile, the Jazz were working on a 71-percent shooting effort, led by rookie Andy Toolson's eight-point period.
The Jazz went ahead with 7:50 to go in the quarter, then built the lead up to seven. Early in the final quarter the Utah lead ballooned to 11, capped by a Stockton three-pointer and a Karl Malone jumper. Hornacek poured in 15 points in under 12 minutes, but the Suns could never cut the lead to less than five. Thurl Bailey's two blocks in the last two minutes played key parts down the stretch, and the Jazz converted their final six free throws, keeping the lead secure.
The win over Phoenix - coming on the heels of an upset loss at Minnesota - spared the Jazz several days of agony, knowing they hadn't finished strong going into the All-Star weekend. "After last night's loss we were all really disappointed," said Jazz guard Delaney Rudd. "I could tell from the start of the game tonight that if they were going to beat us, they would have to play the best they have in a long time."
And at least as well as they played when they met so some many miles and months earlier.