Twenty-four hours after losing to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Utah Jazz are back in the race for first place in the Midwest Division. Although going from Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler to Pooh Richardson and Sam Mitchell sounds fairly easy, it wasn't.
The Jazz managed to shut down Minnesota's attack for several minutes in the early fourth quarter, then maintained their lead for a 115-107 win, Saturday at the Salt Palace.The victory positioned the Jazz to move into first place in the division for the first time all season. After spending 50 games looking at San Antonio from the rear, they now are within a whisper of the lead. "I guess Monday I have to earn my money," said Jazz forward Karl Malone.
Monday's contest against San Antonio will be played at 1:30 p.m. in the Salt Palace. The game will not be televised.
Following the first-place Spurs' Saturday night loss to Dallas and Utah's win over Minnesota, the Jazz are now just one game behind. A victory on Monday would pull them into a virtual tie, only a few percentage points behind the Spurs. It would also give the Jazz a series edge over Spurs, since they already lead that five-game series this year, 2-1.
"If you keep working and keep plugging away, you will give yourself a chance to win. And if you keep trying to take care of your business, you have a chance," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
Sloan's principle also applies to the other guys. Minnesota, who lost its first seven all-time games against the Jazz, suddenly rose up and stunned them in Minneapolis 11 days ago, taking a 94-93 win. Although the Wolves fell behind quickly against the Jazz on Saturday, they held a 90-88 lead with only 10:03 to go in the contest.
Not that this is the first time the Jazz have had trouble with some of the lesser-knowns of the NBA. Besides Minnesota, they have also lost this year to Miami and Orlando. "In this business," said Malone, "you don't overlook anybody. We've learned our lesson with the expansion teams."
After a mostly close first half - that included a 55-foot-buzzer shot by Pooh Richardson at the end of the first quarter - the Jazz steadily worked their way out to an 11-point third-quarter lead. They began the run on a quick pass from Blue Edwards to Malone for a slam. Malone returned the favor seconds later when he passed inside to Edwards for a slam-dunk of his own.
But after getting a comfortable lead, the Jazz began to fizzle. Led by Tony Campbell, who scored 25 points off the bench, Tyrone Corbin (24 points) and Sam Mitchell (20 points), Minnesota found itself trailing by just three points going into the final period.
The Timberwolves went on a 7-2 run to open the quarter, taking the lead on Campbell's running shot and ensuing free throw. But the Jazz stopped Minnesota three straight times down the court and added two baskets by John Stockton, one by Malone and one by Thurl Bailey, to go up 96-90.
Minnesota never got closer than four points the rest of the way.
Malone, who missed much of the first half due to foul trouble, still finished with a team-high 28 points. Guard John Stockton turned in a masterful 25-point, 15-assist night, all against the considerable defensive skills of Richardson.
Curiously, much of Stockton's game came off drives inside, while Malone hurt the Timberwolves badly from the outside. "I think Malone's face-up jump shot hurt us more than his post-up down the stretch in the fourth period," said Timberwolves' Coach Bill Musselman.
"Coach Musselman told me one time last year I didn't have an outside jump shot," said a slightly amused Malone.
Utah made seven of nine free throws in the fourth quarter to keep the Timberwolves at a safe distance.
Minnesota's last chance drifted away with 41 seconds to go on Malone's 12-foot jumper from the angle, putting the Jazz up 112-105.
"The difference was Malone," said Musselman.
Although the Jazz won the rebounding battle by just one, they shot a fine 60 percent for the game. Regardless, Minnesota hung doggedly with the Jazz, avoiding what could have been a blowout.
"They never quit," said Malone of the Wolves. "A team like that gets pumped up to play guys like us."
As far as the Jazz being pumped up, there is no hype necessary when it comes to San Antonio. "I would say this is a big game," said Malone with a smile. "I'm not going to even think about it. I'm just going to come out ready to play in the big one."
GAME NOTES: Utah's game against San Antonio is at 1:30 p.m. because it was originally set to air on NBC. However, the network chose to air the Cleveland-Chicago game . . . With a seven-game road swing looming, indications aren't good for the Jazz. They've lost 13 of 23 road games this year.