These are dark days for Detroit's Bad Boys. Injuries are gnawing away at their dreams of a third straight NBA title. The losses are coming quicker now, and staying longer than they have in years. The Pistons are struggling just to stay close to Chicago in the Central Division race.
Friday night at The Palace, the Jazz delivered more Bad News. Thurl Bailey's 15-foot corner shot with .8 seconds to go found the mark, as the Jazz claimed a 94-92 win over the Pistons.The win, Utah's first in six years in Detroit, moved them 1 1/2 games ahead of the Spurs in the Midwest Division. It also served as a major boost at the start of the season's longest road trip - seven games in 11 days.
"This is a trip that we have been geared up for from the beginning of the season," said Jazz star Karl Malone. "We feel it will make or break our season, basically."
The Jazz spent most of the night fighting back from deficits, brought on by their 41-percent shooting and the Pistons' superior rebounding. But as the end neared, they Jazz ignored their troubles. Trailing 89-87, Jazz rookie Andy Toolson, in the biggest shot of his pro career, caught a pass, shuffled behind the three-point line and landed a shot to give the Jazz a 90-89 lead.
"I don't know what I was thinking when I stepped back," grinned Toolson. "It's not something I practice."
"He back-tracked to get behind the line," said Jazz Coach Jerrry Sloan. "In fact, he went back so far, I thought he was going to be in my lap."
Toolson's shot, with 2:57 to go, gave the Jazz a surge of sudden optimism. Awful shooting hadn't kept them from staying close.
After Dennis Rodman missed two free throws and Vinnie Johnson was off on a jumper, the Jazz got the ball with 20 seconds to go. Stockton dribbled until under 10 seconds remained, then passed to Bailey on the side. Bailey, who missed a game-winner in Minnesota, calmly sank the shot.
"When it went up, I was thinking about the one he missed in Minnesota. I said this one is going in. That was basically it," said Malone.
Afterward, Bailey was a picture of aplomb, philosophically considering his options. "It's a thin line," he said. "You hit it, you're a hero. If you miss, you're a possible dog."
Considering the Pistons have won the NBA title the last two years, these are lean times for the tyrants of the league. They have lost eight of their last 11 and five in a row. In losing to the Jazz, they are now on their longest losing streak in five years.
"Same story," said Pistons' Coach Chuck Daly. "I don't know what the answer is. I don't have any answers. Keep searching."
Of course, the championship Pistons and the current model are two different animals entirely. Detroit is playing without starters John Salley and Isiah Thomas - both out with injuries. Another starter, Joe Dumars, had been bothered by a hamstring injury, but returned to score 30 points against Miami on Thursday and added a team-high 21 against the Jazz. "That hurts," continued Daly. "He's (Thomas) not here. He isn't going to be here."
The Jazz, too, have struggled with injuries. Forward Blue Edwards will miss the seven-game road trip entirely, due to a sprained ankle. Guard Jeff Malone was again on the sidelines in street clothes with a strained back.
In the absence of injured players, the Jazz started Toolson and Bailey, who made a strong case for the decision. Toolson finished with seven points and four rebounds, Bailey with 15 points and five boards.
The Jazz played the Pistons evenly throughout the first half with one small detail - they forgot how to shoot. Five minutes into the game they had missed five of thir first six shots. Amazingly, they were still leading by two. Faced with the grinding Detroit defense, the Jazz spent much of their time pulling up for outside jumpers. The results were that the Jazz only made 32 percent of their first-half shots.
Predictably the game was short on finesse and long on mayhem. The Jazz's John Stockton was bleeding over his left eye before the game was 30 seconds old after being hit by the baddest Bad Boy of all, Bill Laimbeer. "In the first 20 seconds, I slid by Laimbeer and miraculously it (the cut) ended up in my eye," said Stockton.
Laimbeer continued his day's work by pummeling away at Malone to keep himfrom going inside. When the Mailman finally got loose about four minutes into the contest, he missed a slam-dunk. Although Mark Eaton ran down the rebound in the backcourt, he was whistled for traveling.
The Jazz did have their good moments on defense. Malone blocked two shots early. However, Detroit's answer came in the form of 7-foot-1 reserve Tree Rollins, who then blocked two Malone shots.
Mark Aguirre poured in 16 first-half points to lead the early effort.
Malone, who had 11 points in the third quarter, and finished with a team-high 32, began sweeping inside the lane for his patented shots, but Johnson and Dumars steadily pushed the Jazz back with deadly shots. Utah got as far as 11 points behind with 2:23 remaining in the third period. Only fine free throw shooting (33 of 37 for the game) kept the Jazz from falling farther behind. The Pistons went into a shooting slump in the fourth quarter, making just six of 21 attempts while the Jazz made six of their final 12 attempts - their best shooting of the night.
"We hung in there," said Sloan.
Detroit had four offensive rebounds in one possession inside the final 1:30, but failed to convert after Dumars' jumper tied the game at 92.
Following Bailey's final basket, the Pistons in-bounded a pass to James Edwards, but it fell harmlessly away at the buzzer.
The Jazz move on for a Sunday game at Philadelphia.
"It's disappointing," said Dumars. "To be in control of a game like this and then lose down the stretch at home when we need a win bad . . . these are disappointing times right now." Times when being bad has a whole different meaning than it used to.