The Utah Jazz and the great Midwest Division race continues tonight when the Jazz, fresh from their 97-91 come-from-behind win over the Dallas Mavericks last night in the Salt Palace, try to forge a major breakthrough in Los Angeles against the Lakers.
The race has come down to one of attrition now, and of not breaking serve. San Antonio, Houston and Utah all could wind upon top, depending on the final week and the final half-dozen games. The trick is not losing when you're not supposed to, which is what the Jazz almost did last night.
Curiously, though, the Jazz come into tonight's game - one they're not expected to win - looking considerably more menacing than they did before last night's close call with the Mavericks. While it's true that the 50-26 Jazz were almost guilty of losing to a lottery-bound team with an exact opposite 26-50 record, it's also true they looked terrific when they had to.
In the game's final four minutes, when everyone from Houston to San Antonio to Salt Lake City knew these baskets really meant something, the Jazz did something that people dream about: They didn't miss.
Ask Dallas what crunch time meant. After having their way through virtually the entire game, the Mavs saw Thurl Bailey take a feed from Mark Eaton with 3:39 to play and dunk the ball home with the authority of someone on a crusade. With that slam, the Jazz had somehow dug themselves out of a 19-point hole and had an 85-84 lead.A lot of times, of course, that will be the end of such leads, given the energy required to do just one chin-up over the comeback bar.
But even though the game Mavericks - they may be skidding into a lottery pick, but they're skidding with a certain amount of pride - kept coming down the floor and making shots after that, so did the Jazz. And the Jazz didn't miss.
Karl Malone followed Bailey's dunk with two free throws. Then came a pair of free throws from John Stockton. Then came a Jeff Malone 12-foot baseline jump shot. Then two more Karl Malone free throws, and another two from Jeff Malone.
Perfect. The Jazz walked away with a 97-91 win.
"Everybody stepped forward and did his job," said Karl Malone. "That's what we get paid for. That's what we're supposed to do."
Still, their timing was flawless, and also a good deal inspiring.
"If we can take this into Los Angeles (tonight)," said Jeff Malone, "then we'll be passing a real test."
Curiously, the Jazz sounded their alarm clock against Dallas on their own timetable, and not when it seemed obvious. With 2:55 remaining in the third quarter, the public address announcer announced that Portland had just beaten San Antonio in San Antonio - a significant break for the Jazz, who started the night two games behind the Spurs.
It seemed the appropriate time for the Jazz to take charge, particularly since Dallas held a precarious 65-61 lead at the time, and had been outscored by the Jazz 20-5 in the preceding eight minutes.
But the announcement gave Dallas new life, instead of the Jazz, and by the quarter's end the Mavericks' lead was up to seven, 72-65.
Only as the fourth quarter wound down did it become obvious that the Jazz were aware of the gift that had been sent north from San Antonio, and of their opportunity to capitalize on it in Salt Lake.
So they did everything but miss until the buzzer, and now they take their 50-26 mark into L.A. tonight Meanwhile, on the other race fronts, Houston takes its 49-26 record to Golden State tonight, and the 51-25 Spurs prepare for a game tomorrow night at Seattle.
With just two road games - at the Lakers and at Golden State - mixed in with four games at home, the Jazz have the most favorable schedule down the stretch. Houston has five games away and two at home, while San Antonio has four away and two at home. Moreover, the Jazz's lineup of Lakers-Denver-Sacramento-Seattle-Lakers-Golden State is an easier agenda than either San Antonio or the Rockets.
The Spurs' line goes Seattle-Phoenix-Clippers-Houston-Denver-Dallas while Houston's is Golden State-Sacramento-Seattle-Portland-Spurs-Dallas-Denver.
You've got to like the Jazz's chances in light of all that, and especially in light of their penchant last night for turning into perfectionists at the most dramatic stage of the game. If the Jazz do go on a late-season roll that ends at the top of the Midwest Division, it could turn out that the beginning came at the end against the Mavs.