Now that the Jazz are playing against good teams again, there seems to be nothing for them to worry about. They may look slightly feeble when they're playing Charlotte or Minnesota, but bring in somebody dangerous, and suddenly you have a team with a mission.
Don't send the Jazz your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Send them your Blazers, your Celtics, your Houston Rockets. Send them somebody to get nervous over. Faced with the rough-and-tumble Milwaukee Bucks - who had just won four straight games - the Jazz ignored three straight tepid outings to trounce the Bucks 109-98 Monday at the Salt Palace.All things considered, it was a feel-good kind of night for the Jazz. Their fourth straight win kept them solidly ahead in the Midwest Division. Karl Malone - the truck-driving, blue-collar answer to most any inside problem you may encounter - put in 40 minutes of work. The results were 37 points, 15 rebounds, five assists. "Karl is a guy you have to reckon with inside," said Bucks' guard Dale Ellis. "He's hard for us to play."
Certainly the Mailman was a source of consistent aggravation for the Bucks. Ten minutes into the game, Malone had already worked 6-10, 240-pound Frank Brickowski for nine points and five rebounds. By halftime it was up to 17 points and seven boards.
If Malone was enjoying himself on a night when the officials called relatively few fouls, he wasn't alone. Milwaukee comes on like a union of meat packers. They start with Brickowski, continue with 6-10, 245-pound Fred Roberts, and for good measure, throw in 6-11, 250-pound Dan Schayes. Later on they may call on 7-0, 250-pound Jack Sikma or 6-11, 235-pound Brad Lohaus.
"Milwaukee is known as a physical team," said Jazz center Mark Eaton. "They have a lot of big bruiser-type guys. You can't let that fluster you, though."
There was more than one chance for both sides to get flustered. In the second period, Humphries took an ill-advised tour into the lane, only to land flat on his back after Eaton had ground the ball into his forehead. No blood, no foul. Early in the third period, Jazz forward Thurl Bailey was scrapping for the ball on the floor with the Bucks' Fred Roberts, and had his goggles knocked down over his nose and mouth. Although Bailey stated his case by comically pointing at the goggles to the referee, a jump ball was called.
In the fourth quarter, Malone went up for a shot so hard he sent Schayes sliding under the basket on his seat. Schayes, who was called for a foul, could only grin in disbelief.
As he walked onto the court after the halftime break, Harris grinned to a friend and said, "This isn't a game for sissies tonight."
"I thought the Jazz took advantage of the physical nature of the game. I felt we did not adjust to the physicality of the game. Otherwise, we played well," said Harris afterward.
Aside from all their brutish strength, the Bucks are a truly dangerous team. They entered Monday's contest on a four-game win streak, having dispatched New York and Miami in Milwaukee and beaten the Lakers and Denver on the road. "A lot of people don't realize how good they really are, but I think our players were certainly aware of how good they are," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan.
Although constantly beating back rallies by the Bucks, the Jazz never trailed after taking a 32-31 lead on Malone's inside shot with 8:23 left in the first half. Darrell Griffith followed with a three-pointer and the Jazz were soon pulling away. Jeff Malone's baseline shot boosted the Jazz lead to 10.
About that time, the Jazz began realizing things were going to go their way all night. On one play, John Stockton narrowly saved a ball that appeared ready to roll out of bounds, whipping it to Malone for an easy basket. Shortly after, Malone threw a pass that went through Bailey's hands and right into Eaton's, who merely had to stuff it in.
Utah scored the first seven points of the third period to take its biggest lead (58-43). But the Bucks came right back, headed by Ellis, to score the next eight points. Milwaukee got the Jazz lead down to six on five occasions in the third quarter, but the Jazz always responded. "It seems like our runs stopped at six (points) every time," said Harris.
Malone got a reasonable amount of help. Thurl Bailey came off the bench to score 17 points and Griffith contributed two important three-pointers. Jeff Malone added 17 and Stockton put in a 17-assist night.
Although the win put the Jazz 11/2 games ahead of San Antonio in the Midwest Division race, they still have little room to breathe. Third-place Houston, now just two games back, kept up the pressure by winning at Chicago - the Rockets' 12th win in a row. But after winning five straight themselves, the Jazz don't appear ready to give up their lead easily.
"This is a good team and they are on top of their division," said the Bucks' Jay Humphries. "You can tell by the way they played tonight that they want to stay there."
Added Harris, "It would have been very difficult to beat the Utah Jazz tonight. I don't care if you are the Milwaukee Bucks or the Trail Blazers or the Spurs or whatever uniform you slap on before you run out on the court. It would have been a very tough victory for anybody tonight."
At least for anybody good enough to get the Jazz worried.
GAME NOTES: Griffith has made five of his last seven three-point attempts . . . Karl Malone is tied for third in the NBA in scoring at 28.4 ppg. and fourth in rebounding at 12.0 . . . Stockton, who needs just 15 assists to reach the 1,000 mark for the year, leads the league in that category (14.4) . . . Andy Toolson returned after missing the last game with the flu, but didn't play.