Just when the Utah Jazz had begun to position themselves to strike, and when San Antonio's lead in the Midwest Division was starting to tremble, the Jazz found themselves up against the Portland Trail Blazers - still the hottest product on the market.
Hold the confetti. Box up the noise makers. That Jazz are still at arm's length. Six Trail Blazers scored in double figures Friday night at Memorial Coliseum as Portland claimed a 117-105 win over the Jazz.The loss came at a particularly sensitive time for the Jazz, who trailed San Antonio by just 11/2 games going into Friday's game. Now two games back, the Jazz return home for tonight's contest against Minnesota. Then comes the big matchup, with Utah hosting San Antonio in a 1:30 p.m. Monday game in the Salt Palace.
After leading by as much as 11 points in the first quarter, the Jazz found out what all the noise is about concerning Portland's depth. Terry Porter led the way with 22 points, including five three-pointers.
Portland shot eight free throws in the last 1:20 of the first quarter, closing Utah's 27-19 lead to 31-27, then caught the Jazz in the second. The Blazers had established a 67-60 lead by halftime, but extended that to 83-67 early in the third perid.
"We came out in the third quarter and didn't come out strong," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "That was the difference in the ballgame."
If the Blazers hadn't been ready for the Jazz, it could reasonably have been blamed on their fixation with the Los Angeles Lakers, who had suddenly pulled within 31/2 games of the lead going into Friday's competition. Friday's USA Today fanned the flames when it printed a "guarantee" by Lakers' center Vlade Divac that they would beat Portland when the teams meet on Sunday. " . . . They can't keep winning like they did at the beginning. I'm sure we will win Sunday," Divac said.
Early in the game, it appeared the Blazers were thinking of Sunday and forgot to pay attention to Friday. The Jazz got off to an impressive start, rolling to a 17-6 lead.
What passed for great, aggressive defense in the Jazz's eyes was hatchet work to the Blazers. In the first few minutes the Jazz aggressively blocked two Clyde Drexler passes and effectively kept Portland away from the basket.
Incensed by an apparent lack of witnesses to the crimes, Blazer Coach Rick Adelman drew a technical three minutes into the game. Jeff Malone's free throw put Utah ahead 11-2.
Slowly, though, the Jazz wore down. As the game moved into the second quarter, they began drawing fouls. Mike Brown picked up his third personal early in the period and by halftime, four other Jazz players had at least two fouls apiece.
While Utah kept up its torrid shooting - making 24 of 40 attempts in the first 24 minutes - the Blazers eventually came off their cold spell. The Blazers, who shot 24 free throws in the first half, tied the score twice, and finally took the lead with 1:59 to go on Terry Porter's three-pointer. That was followed by six more unanswered points, as the Blazers took a 67-60 lead into the halftime locker room.
The Blazers staged their comeback around the off-the-bench production of guard Danny Ainge. Ainge rang up 15 points in the half. Meanwhile, Karl Malone carried the Jazz with a 22-point, eight-rebound effort.
In the second half, it was a group effort. Cliff Robinson came off the bench to score eight fourth-quarter points, finishing with 19. Other double-figure scorers for the game included Buck Williams , Kevin Duckworth , Drexler and Ainge .
Portland built its lead to 14 points on three occasions in the second half, but couldn't shake the Jazz until the waning moments. Led by Karl Malone (30 points, 11 rebounds) and Thurl Bailey (a season-high 19 points, plus six rebounds), the Jazz got Portland's lead down to four points with 8:50 to go. Bailey scored nine straight points and Malone added an inside shot to close Portland's lead to 99-95. But Ainge pumped in an outside shot to ignite a 6-1 run, putting the Blazers back ahead by nine. Robinson caught a rebound and shot the ball back in the same motion with 4:53 remaining, giving the Blazers a 108-98 lead and effectively finishing the Jazz.
Sloan said the Jazz's shot selection in the second half cost them dearly. "We had a chance to get back in the game and we got a little crazy. He (Porter) had the hot hand and we were running all over the place, but not getting much done."
While the Blazers came away with a fairly comfortable winning margin, beating the Jazz has seldom been an easy proposition for Portland. Though the Blazers won two of four last year against Utah, both victories were at home. Utah's Jan. 31 win over the Blazers was its 17th in 18 attempts at the Salt Palace. Over the years, Utah has a 42-34 edge.
However, this year's Blazer team is something to pay attention to. With 40 wins in their first 49 games, they became the first NBA team this year to hit the 40-win mark. Just two years ago, the Blazers only won 39 games all season.
"The effort was there but it wasn't good enough against a great team," continued Sloan. "Portland just killed us on the boards all night (53-34)."
NOTES: The Jazz return to the Salt Palace for a Saturday night game against Minnesota. The Timberwolves are 1-7 lifetime against the Jazz . . . The Jazz have won five of their last even and are 30-12 since their 2-5 start . . . The Jazz are 29-5 when scoring more than 100 points and 21-3 when holding the opposition under 100 . . . The Jazz are third in the NBA in defense . . . Jeff Malone, who now missed seven games in a row due to a groin pull, returned, but played only 31 minutes . . . Karl Malone is second in the league in rebounding andfourthin scoring . . . Blue Edwards has scored in double figures in eight of his last 10 games . . . In this season alone, John Stockton has climbed from 19th to 14th on th alltime NBA assist list.