With only a few exceptions, the Utah Jazz have always been a forlorn team on the road. Put them in their own arena, they are the most dangerous thing since Bruce Lee. On the road, it's a different story. There the Jazz have been the Incredible Shrinking Team, one that rarely lived up to its reputation once it crossed the state line.
Lately, all that seems to be changing. Three games into their dreaded seven-game road trip, the Jazz continue to terrorize the Eastern time zone. Detroit and Philadelphia fell over the weekend. Then, Monday night at Orlando Arena, the Jazz crushed the Magic, 106-88. Without regard to race, creed, religion or zip code, the Jazz are systematically breaking hearts all over the East."This team has struggled on the road," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "We haven't been able to beat anyone of any significance on the road. Now we've won four out of five."
Strangely, the Jazz's newfound belligerence has come at a time when they would normally have problems. Prior to the past two weeks, the Jazz had won only 10 road games, and none against a team with a .500 or-better record (except a designated road win over Phoenix in Japan). Going on the road was an assignment worse than a visit to the IRS.
Karl Malone, that noted philosopher and basketball star, says such action on the road is mandatory for teams with plans ahead.
"To be a good team, you have to go and win on the road," began Malone. "You have to sometimes win close and sometimes you have to win impressive."
These days, the Jazz are taking care of both.
Utah's fourth road win in five games came against a team that had, against the odds, been playing some of the better basketball in the league. Despite losing on Sunday to Denver, the Magic came in having won three of five road games, including those over Golden State and Phoenix.
Although the Jazz's third straight road victory was significant news, there was even more to come. After missing five consecutive games and 12 of the previous 15 with injuries, Jeff Malone dutifully warmed up prior to tipoff, hoping to find himself ready to answer the call. Instead of changing back into street clothes and finding a spot at the end of the bench, he remained.
Soon, the newest Malone had the Jazz remembering what they had missed in his absence. By the time the game was only minutes old, he had made four of five shots and two free throws for 10 points. If he was rusty, he wasn't showing it.
"He makes it look easy," said a properly impressed John Stockton. "It takes the pressure off everyone else. I know I'm glad to see him back."
If Malone's return was received with enthusiasm by the Jazz, it didn't do much for the Magic. They had put up an impressive effort just to keep the Mailman under control, holding him to two first-quarter points. But out on the perimeter, where the Magic were unable to muscle around, Jeff was back in his old rhythm.
Stung by the slow start, Karl Malone finally got down to business in the second quarter, scoring 14 points. In one run he tallied eight of the Jazz's 10 points to lead them to a nine-point lead.
On their way to an all-out embarrassment, the Magic abandoned their plan for a balanced attack, and began running plays toward highly publicized rookie Dennis Scott. In one six-minute run, Scott scored 14 of the Magic's first 16 points. "Scott was really on a tear," said Sloan. "He couldn't be shut down."
Despite Scott's one-man war, the Jazz barely noticed. Instead of closing the gap, the Magic found themselves trailing even farther. The two Malones were sharing the honors, scoring 12 of 14 points between them during one stretch in the third period. Stockton stole the ball and threw in a jump-shot at the buzzer, and the Jazz ended the third quarter pulling away, 81-65.
Curiously, despite Scott's fine performance, he spent long minutes on the bench, playing just 35 for the game. He sat out the end of the third period, and watched as five minutes passed in the final quarter before returning. He got back in time to score four points in the period, but the spell had been broken. After making 10 of 15 third-quarter attempts, he missed both of his fourth-quarter field-goal tries.
Karl Malone put the finishing touches on his 30-point, 11-rebound night by making two quick inside shots to boost the Jazz to a 100-80 lead.
For the Magic, it was all over but the grumbling.
Predictably, the Jazz are feeling as well as they have all season. Even in the midst of an 11-day trip, they aren't grumbling. "The more you think about being tired, the more you're going to be tired," said Sloan.
And as they have found lately, nobody gets tired when all you're doing is winning.
GAME NOTES: Guard Darrell Griffith had his consecutive games played streak ended at 221 by not playing against the Magic . . . Utah's next assignment is a Wednesday night game at Washington . . . The Jazz have now held three straight opponents to fewer than 100 points and four straight opponents to 23 or fewer points in the final quarter.