Only a few minutes into the game, it was obvious this wasn't one of the Jazz's red-letter nights. Before you could shout, "This is awful," they had already committed five turnovers. They missed eight of their first 10 shots and 14 of their first 18. Karl Malone had been penalized for charging and traveling and hadn't a single rebound to his name. Andy Toolson had missed three shots badly, including one air ball and a missed layup. Of the five starters, only two had even scored.
Was it a massive case of the flu? Sominex in the Gatorade? Late wake-up call? Nope. It was the first day back from vacation. "We looked like we had never played before," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan.The Jazz overcame a horrendous first quarter, led by John Stockton's nine steals, to finish with a 113-92 win over the Houston Rockets, Tuesday night at the Salt Palace.
However unsightly the beginnings were, they weren't entirely surprising. In a season that includes 82 games, teams have a tendency to let down when given a five-day break. "Looking back over the years," said Rockets' Coach Don Chaney, "usually they (first games after the All-Star break) are sloppy games."
Certainly this one qualified. In the first 12 minutes, the Jazz made just five of 20 shots. Meanwhile, the Rockets weren't exactly making history, hitting eight of 21. "You never want to limit yourself by expecting your not being able to throw it in the ocean," said Stockton, "but when I looked up and both teams had only scored seven points, I had to believe we'd get into our rhythm pretty soon."
There were two notable exceptions to the slow start. The Rockets' Vernon Maxwell made three home run shots and totaled 16 points in the first 12 minutes en route to landing a total of six three-pointers and scoring 32 points. Jazz guard Stockton was equally impressive, with four first-quarter steals. When all was finished, Stockton had recorded 19 points, 11 assists, and a franchise-high (tied with Rickey Green) nine steals.
Winning over Midwest rival Houston continued a modest run that now includes victories in five of their last six outings. And while the Rockets were playing without their most valuable asset, injured center Akeem Olajuwon, the Jazz, too, weren't at full strength. Guard Jeff Malone watched his seventh straight game from the sidelines, bogged down by a groin pull.
If Malone and Olajuwon had excuses for not being up to speed, nobody else did. "I told my players that we've been laying around for a couple of days on our pillows, getting comfortable," continued Sloan.
Trailing 22-17 at the end of the first quarter, the Jazz quickly began to reverse their fortunes. Malone got his first rebound a minute into the period, and the Jazz moved into the trapping defense that would eventually account for most of Houston's 21 turnovers. Mike Brown's slam with 7:24 to go put the Jazz ahead 29-28, after which they would never trail again.
The Jazz lead swelled to nine points before halftime, helped along by a technical on Maxwell.
After shooting 25 percent for the first period, they shot a whopping 72 percent for the second. "It just takes a little time to get going," said Malone.
The lead eventually moved to 24 points in the fourth period. Thurl Bailey scored nine of his 18 points in the quarter and Stockton put the finishing touches on his game with six assists. Malone wrapped up his night's work with a team-high 26 points and eight rebounds.
With six minutes to go the Rockets were losing by 24 and ready to run up the white flag. They approached the Jazz with a lineup that included rookies Matt Bullard, Dave Jamerson and Kennard Winchester. Shortly after, the Jazz rookies arrived for the mop-up work.
With Houston playing without Olajuwon, who is out with an eye injury, the Jazz eventually pulled painlessly away. That isn't likely to be the case in their next game. Coming up is a Friday contest at Portland, where the Blazers will be hoping to avenge a 105-91 loss to the Jazz in the Salt Palace. That will be followed by a Saturday night game in the Salt Palace against Minnesota.
Sloan made it clear that his team's next break won't be until next summer. "We've got to go practice a little harder," he said. "Vacation's over."
GAME NOTES: Jeff Malone said he continues to be bothered by the groin pull and doesn't want to re-injure himself by returning too quickly . . . Bailey's 18 points tied a season high, set Feb. 2 against New Jersey . . . the Jazz are 30-11 since their 2-5 start . . . Coupled with San Antonio's victory on Tuesday, the Jazz remained two games back in the divisional race . . . The Jazz play three of the next four games in the Salt Palace. However, their most grueling road trip of the year begins March 1 in Detroit; it includes seven games in 11 days.