The Utah Jazz's five-game winning streak came to a sudden halt Wednesday night. No, it wasn't at the hands of Portland or San Antonio or the Lakers. It was a much tougher assignment than that: the Los Angeles Clippers.
Continuing a trend for having trouble with teams of little consequence, the Jazz lost a 95-89 decision to the Clippers at the L.A. Sports Arena.That the Jazz would lose to the Clippers came as no terrific surprise. Not Karl Malone's season-high 41 points or John Stockton's 15-point first half could keep the Jazz from slipping. The loss narrowed the Jazz's Midwest Division lead over San Antonio to just 1/2 game, and 1 1/2 over Houston.
Of course, the Clippers are a vastly improved team since the clubs met last Dec. 29. Having traded to get enthusiastic center Olden Polynice and returned guard Ron Harper from the injured list, they pose a far greater threat than many would believe. "We've really come together and started to jell," said Clippers' forward Danny Manning.
The Clippers have won three in a row, including victories over Charlotte, Golden State, Phoenix and Utah.
Although the Jazz lost the game, it wasn't necessarily a case of poor play. Utah finished with 45 percent field goal shooting, but that percentage only got low in the late going, when the Jazz were taking desperate shots. Utah out-rebounded the Clippers 37-34. But L.A. made a fine 53 percent of its shots, led by Ron Harper with 29 and Charles Smith with 22.
The loss snapped a six-game winning streak at the Sports Arena for the Jazz.
After falling behind by as many as 12 points in the first half, the Jazz pulled the standard comeback tricks out of their hats, and actually led 61-56 in the third quarter. But trouble was brewing. Jazz forward Thurl Bailey got his fourth personal foul shortly after, and the Clippers continued to play smart. Before the period was over, the Clips had reversed their fortunes, and taken a 72-68 lead at the break.
However, after a brief Clippers' run at the start of the fourth period, the Jazz were in trouble the rest of the way. Harper's trey and Polynice's free throw put the Clippers ahead 76-68.
Struggling against fine shooting by the Clippers, Utah was unable to tie the score again. Malone's two free throws with 1:29 to go pulled the Jazz within two, but Harper came through with another basket a few seconds later.
Trailing 92-89 with 39 seconds left, the Jazz's Malone missed an ill-advised three-pointer and soon Harper was at the line making, two straight free throws with 24.7 seconds to go. Two three-point tries by Darrell Griffith and one by Stockton went awry at the end to preserve the Clippers' victory.
L.A. leads the series 40-36 over the Jazz.
After going ahead 7-2, the Jazz seemed headed for an easy win. But as quickly as they led in the game, they were behind 9-7. Jazz guard Jeff Malone went down with a sore ankle and left the game. Though he returned later, he finished with a 2-for-8 shooting night.
Late in the first quarter Utah dropped behind by eight points. The deficit got as big as 12 points, 38-26, in the second period on Charles Smith's 17-footer.
Utah got as much as a five-point lead ahead in the third quarter, but soon was struggling again. Winston Garland hit a 20-footer to finally put the Clippers back ahead, 66-65, and the Jazz never led again.
Stockton missed his first eight shots of the second half. The Jazz went better than four minutes in the final period without scoring a field goal. Bailey missed a layup and Jeff Malone a 17-footer with Utah trailing 83-79.
Though Karl Malone made six straight free throws at the end - and during one run hit 10 straight field goals - Utah couldn't shut down the Clippers down the stretch.
By some indications, the Jazz are in deep trouble now, since their next game is Thursday night at Arco Arena when they meet Sacramento. Not that the Kings are a good team. But in the last two weeks the Jazz have struggled to beat lowly Denver, Charlotte and Minnesota, and finally lost to the sixth-place Clippers.
After Sacramento comes a Tuesday game at Phoenix and a Wednesday contest at home against the Clippers.