Two games into what could have been a long, disastrous seven-game road trip, the Utah Jazz are looking like the Beast in the East. In the last three days, they have put away some of the most intimidating people in the profession. Bill Laimbeer's grimacing, Rick Mahorn's snarling and Charles Barkley's pushing have had no effect. Not even 7-foot-7 Manute Bol, his arms flailing above the rim, has been able to change the course of events.
The Jazz are playing perhaps their best basketball of the season, and the nastiest people in town have been unable to stop them.Karl Malone has settled into a 30-point groove that has opposing fans shaking their heads. John Stockton is widening his lead among the league's best assist men. And Thurl Bailey is picking up steam by the minute, having scored the final dramatic basket two games in a row.
For the second time in three days, the Jazz erased an 11-point third-quarter deficit to take a 95-92 win over the 76ers Sunday afternoon in the Spectrum.
On most counts, Sunday's contest had an odd sense of deja vu: A big, bad opponent. The game slipping away from the Jazz in the second half. The Jazz turning things around just before falling off the ledge.
"In the past," mused Malone, "we let these games slip away. This year, we've learned to buckle down and keep cool."
If this story sounds familiar, it should. As recently as Friday night, it was the same story, different team. Bailey landed a 15-foot shot at the buzzer as the Jazz stunned the Pistons in Detroit.
This time, the Jazz struggled through the early going, doing their best to contain the Sixers. After leading 50-49 at the half, they inexplicably went into a run of quick, errant shots. Leading by four, they suddenly found themselves behind 74-63 with 3:03 to go in the third period. Sixer Hersey Hawkins, who had an outstanding 31-point night, was working on an 11-point quarter, including two three-pointers that left the Jazz reeling.
"We had a period there where we couldn't take shots fast enough," said Coach Jerry Sloan facetiously.
But as the quarter came to a close, the Jazz began to pick things up. Malone, who had been twice blocked by Bol on shots, went inside and drew a foul, making both free throws. Mike Brown added another free throw, and Stockton scored twice in a 30-second period. Then Malone pulled the Jazz within five with a rebound basket at the end of the period.
Utah finally went ahead by one with 1:12 left on a Stockton free throw. Philly missed two straight shots, the second on Armon Gilliam's attempt with :25 seconds left. Stockton dribbled until 5.9 seconds remained, then flawlessly fired a pass to Bailey underneath for a dunk. "John made a terrific pass with five seconds left to go," said Sloan. "He knows where people are."
The Sixers got the ball to Barkley for a three-point attempt in the waning seconds, but with Malone in his face, he was forced to pass off. "I thought I knew what he was going to do," said Malone. "He was going to try to take me up in the air and then get a shot and draw a foul. But I stayed on my feet."
Barkley passed to Rickey Green in the corner, but the shot was off at the buzzer. "I wouldn't count on him missing many of those," said Stockton.
For the second straight game, Bailey scored the final basket. His dunk against the Sixers forced them to go for a three-pointer at the end.
"I'm a Thurl Bailey fan, from the standpoint that he does whatever is asked of him," said Sloan.
Malone finished with 35 points, Bailey 20 and Stockton 17 points and 16 assists.
The final outcome overshadowed what, at one point, appeared to be a crucial mistake at the scorer's table. With the Jazz ahead 24-23, Hawkins landed an 18-foot jumper in the corner, which the scoreboard operator counted as a three-point shot. The mistake wasn't corrected until halftime, when a review of the circumstances with officials cost the Sixers a point.
While Hawkins had a fine game, including five three-pointers, the Jazz's main concern, Barkley, was rendered relatively ineffective. Bailey, who also had seven rebounds and a block, spent the night on the dubious task of grappling with the Round Mound of Rebound. In his spare time, Stocktondropped back to double-team Barkley. Between them and an occasional spell when Malone was on Barkley, the Sixer star could only produce 14 points. Malone completed the afternoon with his fourth 30-plus scoring night in five games.
"Charles is one of the greatest players in the game," said Malone.
The win gave the Jazz their third straight victory and their first in Philadelphia since December, 1986. It also kept them 11/2 games ahead of the Spurs in the Midwest Division race.
However, the Jazz stopped short of celebrating their newfound road success for long. "It was just another game," warned Malone. "We haven't done anything yet."
Which should come as truly sobering news to anyone else left on on the Jazz schedule in the coming week.
GAME NOTES: Jazz guard Jeff Malone missed his fifth straight game and 12th of the last 15 due to a strained back. He warmed up with the team but then returned to the locker room and watched the game in street clothes . . . Utah held its opponents to under 20 points in the fourth quarter for the third straight game.