For a series that is supposed to be filled with intrigue and drama, Utah and San Antonio are having a hard time living up to billing. You want close scores and cliffhanging finishes? Consider waiting until the Jazz host the Sonics. Dastardly villains? Check Yellow Pages under "Orlando." Screaming crowds and blaring horns? Bring on the Hawks. But when the Jazz and Spurs get together, bring along your No-Doze.
While they may have a knack for winning big home games, the Jazz have absolutely no sense of drama. They moved into a tie for first place in the Midwest Division Monday afternoon at the Salt Palace - for the first time this year - claiming a surprisingly easy 104-81 victory over the Spurs. They controlled the game so thoroughly, the Spurs went down without a whimper. "I have no excuses," said San Antonio Coach Larry Brown. "Give the Jazz credit, they wanted to win more than we did."The game had all the earmarks of a Jerry Sloan fantasy. Aggressive, punishing defense. Plenty of blocked shots. Bargain basement score. Even the Mailman, usually good for a couple of inflammatory quotes per night, had on his best game face, referring mostly to the long schedule remaining. "We just started something," said Malone. "We've gotta finish it now. We've climbed too big a mountain to let things slip."
Despite the growing intensity of this Midwest rivalry, the series this year has had all the suspense of a visit to a fabric shop. When they met Nov. 8 in Salt Lake, the Jazz claimed a comfortable 103-94 win. That was the close one. It was followed by a 112-92 Spurs' victory in San Antonio. Then came the last two in Salt Lake, which included Jazz wins of 22 and 23 points, respectively. Don't these teams know how to play a close game?
"It's hard to explain," said Jazz swingman Blue Edwards. "You expect San Antonio to be hungry, and us the same way. They were missing some people. But the key this season has been how we've played at each other's house. The winner has always played the best defense."
The afternoon's festivities began with plenty of promise. Utah trailed the Spurs by only one game in the standings. The matchup was the fourth of five between the teams this year, and with the Jazz having won two already, it was being billed as a key game. It not only represented a chance to get into first place; it also stood to be the tiebreaker in the head-to-head series.
Those factors notwithstanding, NBC television wasn't impressed. The game had been slated for Monday afternoon so the network could televise the outcome. Instead, Monday's Cleveland-Chicago game was aired. In hindsight, it wasn't a bad decision. The Spurs, playing without injured forward Terry Cummings and gurad Rod Strickland, were forced to replace them instead with rookie Dwayne Schintzius and second-year guard Avery Johnson. The results weren't impressive.
Slapping a furious defense and alert transition offense on the Spurs in the early minutes, the Jazz bolted to a 14-6 lead. Although All-Star center David Robinson was on course for a typically fine game (26 points, nine rebounds), he felt the brunt of the Jazz defense as much as anyone. Late in the first period, he went inside for an easy finger roll, only to find Malone swatting the ball back in his face. The Jazz blocked three first-quarter shots and finished the game with a total of nine, four by Malone.
The Spurs finished the night with 10 blocks of their own.
In the second period, the Jazz defense began to take its toll, forcing the Spurs into nine turnovers. San Antonio closed the Jazz lead to one, but Utah then ran off a 21-2 string to go ahead 47-27. John Stockton orchestrated the streak, scoring 10 of his 18 points and contributing two steals in the 71/2-minute period.
Meanwhile, Robinson went about his business with cool precision. He calmly strolled the court, rising up only when called upon to stuff in an errant shot, block a Jazz attempt or collect a rebound. Afterward he slapped hands with kids hanging along the walkway to the locker room. Fans looking for a scapegoat during the game were hard-pressed to find someone to be mad at.
However composed, Robinson couldn't have been feeling very charitable on Monday. He blocked one Malone second-quarter shot, but the Mailman got it back, went deep in the corner and landed a jumper. The best the Spurs could do was keep the Jazz lead to 55-39 at half.
"That first half was about as good defense as I've seen us play all year," said Sloan.
The Jazz's lead got as high as 23 points in the third period, and they never let it slip below 16.
Due to the Jazz's surprisingly easy time, the crowd rarely became animated - with one exception. Following one play near the Spurs' bench, Jazz owner Larry Miller became involved in a disturbance with Spurs assistant coach R.C. Buford. Miller had risen from his seat to complain at Spurs' forward Sean Elliott for what he thought was rough treatment of Stockton. "I was getting on Elliott for the cheap shot," said Miller. Then Buford stepped in. "He told me to leave their players alone and I fired back," Miller continued.
An exchange continued between coaches, Miller, and a friend of Miller's sitting nearby, but eventually officials quieted things down.
Despite the emotion of the moment, the final period was merely a matter of playing out the minutes.
If the Jazz were exultant, they did a good job of keeping it subdued. With nine of their next 10 games on the road - where they've won only 10 times this year - the chances of staying in first place for long aren't good. The last game of a seven-game road swing will be March 11 at - you guessed it - San Antonio, where the Jazz have lost five straight. At which time they can only hope that they can reverse the trend of winning big at home and losing big on the road.