Almost as quickly as the Utah Jazz surprised the basketball world with their new road act, they shut out the lights and went home. A dramatic rise, a sudden fall. Seven games, 11 days, four wins, three losses and a blur of cities in the night.
. "It's been a heck of a trip," said Jazz forward Karl Malone.The Jazz finished their grueling two-week saga with a 105-96 loss Monday night at San Antonio. And though they won their first four and lost their last three games of the trip, they didn't go out meekly. As the Spurs closed in on the Jazz in the waning moments, Malone was still taking pieces out of the Spurs, not only with punishing inside shots, but adding a three-pointer for good measure. John Stockton put a wrap on a 20-assist night with two three-pointers himself that served to let the Spurs know they had been in a fight with an old rival.
The series between Utah and San Antonio is over for now, with predictable results: three Jazz wins at home, two losses in San Antonio. "We just couldn't let them beat us 4-1 in the series," said the Spurs" Sean Elliott. "When it's us against them, whoever plays at home is gonna win."
Indeed, the series between these teams has been strangely one-sided for the home team. The Jazz haven't won in San Antonio since 1989 (six games). However, the last time the Spurs were able to win a game in Salt Lake, it was 1986 (15 games ago).
The loss left the Jazz a game behind the Spurs in the race for the Midwest Division title. Their series being over for the year, it's now a matter of playing games and watching the standings. "I feel great," said Malone. "If you'd asked anybody before this trip if we'd be this close (to San Antonio) at the end, they wouldn't have believed it. We feel really good. Now we've got to step it up."
By most indications, the Jazz left South Texas feeling good about their station in life. They had taken on their longest road series in years and lived to tell. Instead of being three or four games back of the Spurs, they are only one. Exhilirating wins over Detroit, Philadelphia, Orlando and Washington were followed by losses to Chicago, New York and San Antonio.
However, the Jazz didn't fold up their tent or leave peaceably. In all three losses the Jazz fell dangerously far behind - 16 points against the Knicks and Bulls, 14 to the Spurs - only to struggle back in the final period. "We showed tremendous heart," said Sloan. "We've been on the road for seven games and this team (San Antonio) is sitting in here waiting for us. We showed a terrific effort."
As admirable as their effort may have been, the Jazz saw their chances to win fading before the game four was minutes gone. While making more than half their shots in the first period, San Antonio was rolling along on a pace that would produce 17 baskets in their first 22 attempts.
Most of the Jazz's problems came from an old, reliable source: David Robinson. In the first 12 minutes he scored 12 points.
"Robinson is Robinson," shrugged Sloan. "That's why they're filling this place up. Of course, you didn't see too many people here before he got here."
Regardless of Robinson's obvious advantages in the inside over center Mark Eaton, the Jazz were hurt as much from other sources. Willie Anderson had two baskets in a 9-0 first-quarter run that gave the Spurs a lead they would never relinquish. Five Spurs finished the game in double figure scoring.
Try as they could to close the gap, the Jazz never fully recovered from the early deficit. Malone hit a falling jumper with 6:56 left in the game to cut the Spurs' lead to four points, but they never got closer. Then the Spurs outscored the Jazz 6-2, ending the run on a pair or Elliot free throws.
As time dwindled, the Jazz resorted to quick outside shots, which translated into transition baskets at the other end. Stockton did land two three-pointers and Malone even pulled up for one with 1:44 to go, closing the lead to 99-93. The Spurs polished it off free throws.
Malone finished with 34 points and 10 rebounds, while Robinson racked up a 33-point, seven-rebound night. "Terrific heart," said Sloan of his team. "We weren't exactly playing a weak team."
"We were in the ballgame all the way. We played our behinds off," added Malone. But when it comes to these two teams, how you play doesn't seem to mean as much as where.
GAME NOTES: John Stockton had his 27th career 20-assist game . . . Spurs' guard Paul Pressey injured his left leg going up for a shot with 10 seconds left in the game. He was carried from the court . . . Uah is just 8-30 alltime in San Antonio, winning just twice in the last 10 tries.