The condition of the Utah Jazz continues to be rather precarious these days. Locked into a furious race to the finish with San Antonio and Houston, the Jazz are finding that nothing comes easy, not even their wins. The bench help Coach Jerry Sloan wants is back-ordered and no delivery date has been set. The legendary Jazz belly-up defense has been taking occasional sick leave. And that collection of mostly papier-mache opponents left on the schedule? Close your eyes. Everybody is giving the Jazz trouble now.
The latest in the Jazz's run of late-season problems came to town Wednesday night, and left the Jazz shaken but not fallen. Mark Eaton's block of a Ron Harper shot with 3.2 seconds left averted a three-point attempt and preserved a 99-97 win over the Los Angeles Clippers.While the Jazz continue to struggle to avoid a second straight late-season collapse, the newly rejuvenated Clippers are having some of the best days of their existence. Hollywood's "other" team has come to be known as a rising star on the horizon. Going into Wednesday's game, the Clippers had won five in a row - their longest winning streak since October, 1985.
"I think some people are sorry to realize that we really are going to have a nice ballclub here," said L.A. Coach Mike Schuler.
Certainly the Clippers are no longer the laughable weaklings of the West. Ever since the addition of center Olden Polynice Feb. 20, things have begun to look up. His penchant for emotional displays has not only endeared him to Clippers' fans, but it has made the team fiesty and hungry, two adjectives that were rarely used when describing Clippers' teams of the past.
As for the future of the Jazz - who have lost three of their last four - one can only wonder. "No comment," said Eaton jokingly, when asked about how he felt about the team's condition. Then he added, "We've struggled defensively . . . but we're on the road back. We are hoping we can carry this over to this next trip."
The road back takes the Jazz through Dallas and Houston, where they will be playing on Friday and Saturday. By the time that stretch is over, the Jazz should have a decent idea what their chances are to win the Midwest Division title.
For all their recent problems - weak bench performances, poor rebounding, defensive lapses, fatigue - the Jazz did muster enough confidence to beat a team on a roll, after a sound beating from the Phoenix Suns the night before. Karl Malone, described by Clippers' Coach Mike Schuler as "a man among boys," muscled in 39 points. Jeff Malone made 11 of 16 shots and scored 22 points. "We played hard last night and we knew coming in here tonight that this was going to be a tough game," said Sloan.
Despite Sloan's concerns, the Jazz began the night looking like someone with orders to kill. They made five of their first seven shots, jumping ahead 10-2, while the Clippers made only one of their first six attempts.
But soon it became a closely played contest. Guard Winston Garland scored three straight baskets and the Clippers surged ahead 23-19. Harper tossed in the first of his four three-point shots on the night, and he and the Mailman - who made four of his first five shots - had set the stage for a duel that would go down to the last seconds.
Faced with dwindling energy, the Jazz quickly revived, outscoring the Clippers 19-4 during one second-quarter run and eventually ended the half leading 49-42.
If not especially artful, the first half did provide a dash of controversy, compliments of the Mailman and Polynice. Malone had tangled legs with guard Winston Garland, after which Polynice paid a visit to the Mailman. The two lapsed into a prolonged period of woofing, which earned each a technical foul.
Polynice later claimed Malone had called his team "losers," and said the action "showed a lack of class."
Not so, said the Mailman. "I didn't say Clippers (were losers), I said him," said Malone. "You look at the teams he's been on, what does that tell you? The stats speak for themselves."
Although the Jazz had a fairly comfortable lead at the break, things quickly began to cloud. The Clippers rang up a whopping 38 third-quarter points. Utah, the third-best defensive team in the NBA, was giving up numbers like a calculator. In hopes of generating some additional punch, Sloan went to the bench, using five reserves during the night. But among them all, only six points were hatched and only one field goal. "We struggled," said Sloan.
Meanwhile, Harper, who finished the game with 26 points, had no such problems, scoring 16 points in the third quarter alone, as L.A. took an 80-74 lead into the final period.
After Utah tied the score at 87-87 with 7:26 to go, the teams settled in to await what both expected - a heart-stopping finish. Harper's only points of the final period came at the 3:07 mark, but they put the Clippers ahead by one. But the Mailman spun for a basket and drew a foul a minute later, tying the score at 97, then followed with a 10-footer for a 99-97 lead with 1:36 to go. Next he tied Charles Smith up for a jump ball.
"Karl made some big plays inside," said Sloan. "Of course, he always does that."
Then came the final tense moments. Danny Manning missed a shot with six seconds left, but the ball went out of bounds to the Clippers. Garland passed to the Harper in the corner, who pulled up for a shot, only to find Eaton looming in his way. Eaton swatted the ball down and Malone picked it up as the clock ran out.
"I knew they were going to look for him and I just saw him go up," said Eaton. "I tried to get a hand in his face and I got a piece of the ball as well."
Said Harper, "Mark is 7-foot-4 and has got those long arms, and he got a piece of the ball."
If not a classic, the game did end the Jazz's losing streak at three. It also kept alive their hopes to win the No. 2 berth in the Western Conference playoffs. But taking wins for granted, even wins over the Clippers, is a thing of the past. "Man, if we ever needed a win," said the Mailman, "that was it."