Another night in the NBA came and went Monday, and when it was over, not much had changed. The Jazz were still trailing the San Antonio Spurs by two games in the standings, despite having dropped Orlando 111-95 at the Salt Palace. Coach Jerry Sloan was still worrying about fatigue, declaring Tuesday an official day of rest. The Mailman was, naturally, entertaining the media with his observations on life in the NBA. And everyone was a step closer to the end of the regular season.
"We still have a lot of basketball left - seven games," said Sloan. "That's one-third of a college season. So we've got to just try to go out and win them."While seven games may represent a large chunk of a college season, it is a vastly smaller portion of an 82-game pro campaign. As the Spurs continued their charge toward the playoffs, beating Golden State the same night, the Jazz did what they could and shrugged off San Antonio's win. "We've still got a heck of a chance to win this thing," professed Karl Malone. "I know a lot of people don't think so, but we do."
What all of this positioning for the playoffs had to do with Orlando was anyone's guess. Nevertheless, the Magic arrived in Salt Lake and appeared as loose and cocky as anyone who has won only 27 games can be. There was laughter and joking during warmups. The differing teams - one headed for the playoffs, one headed for the beach - made for a bad mix: one player technical, serious back-talk, allegations of cheap shots, one double foul and an uneven production by both sides.
"We've been playing much better basketball than that. It was our poorest performance in quite awhile, really . . . It was almost like we dragged them down with us a little bit," said Magic Coach Matt Guokas.
At least when the Jazz and Magic get together, there is no question what you're going to get. The Magic assigned bruiser Greg Kite to tail the Mailman, with instructions to make him pay for his points. Sure enough, halfway into the first quarter, Kite got tangled up with Malone, after which the Mailman gave a quick shove to Kite, then began arguing with guard Scott Skiles. After turning his wrath on an official, Malone was hit with a techncial foul.
While the technical served to give the Magic a 13-10 lead, it did little to dismay the Mailman. "It's just a competitive thing," he said. "I figured if I get a technical a game, that's $8,200 dollars a year. I can afford that."
Shortly afterward, the Jazz went on a 13-2 run and were ahead to stay. Though the Magic remained close much of the game, they never got the lead again.
Although Malone was finished with his technical fouls for the night, he wasn't through with Kite. The two spent most of the evening wrestling one another around the basket. Late in the game, Malone held up his arm to show that Kite had a hand still clinging to him, and then slapped Kite's hand away. Another time the two were called for a double foul, prompting Malone to stare at the referee and blink his eyes in disbelief.
"I know one thing," continued Malone. "When I retire I want him (Kite) as my partner . . . WWF wrestlemania."
Kite was able to avoid fouling out, but two teammates weren't. Dennis Scott and Jeff Turner, both starters, left with six fouls and Kite finished with five.
Allegations of hatchet basketball weren't limited to Malone and Kite. Jazz center Mark Eaton, in a rare display of anger, exchanged words with the Magic's Jerry Reynolds. Eaton contended afterward that Reynolds struck him in the back with a forearm. "It was a cheap shot. It felt like a fly swatting me, but I let him know I didn't appreciate that," said Eaton.
Although Orlando stayed within eight points at halftime, Utah finally extended the lead. Malone, who had 23 of his34 points in the second half, sank a fallaway to put Utah ahead 65-55. The Magic got back within three, led by rookie Dennis Scott's 11-point period, but soon began running out of time.
Malone's three-point play with 6:22 to go put the Jazz ahead by 13. Jeff Malone, who had 20 points, eased in four straight free throws to boost the Jazz lead to 15 with under four minutes remaining.
When all the fouling and debating was finished, the teams appeared ready to acknowledge that it was a hard-fought effort on both sides. "Give them credit. They knew they had to play hard and they've been playing well against some good teams," said Malone.
As for the Jazz, they were only too happy to hold serve in their race for the divisional title with the Spurs and Houston. But Sloan continued to worry about his team's tired condition. The Jazz have now played five games in seven days, and will play three more in the next five.
As a stopgap measure, the coach told the team there would be no practice on Tuesday. Said Malone, "Tomorrow, I'm not even going to think about basketball."
Game Notes: Guard Darrell Griffith did not play due to Sloan's decision for the third straight game . . . John Stockton's 16 assists put him within 63 of his own NBA single-season record of 1,134 . . . Malone needs 38 points to move into second place on the Jazz's all-time scoring list . . . The Jazz won four of five games with the Magic this year.