The worst team in the NBA made its final appearance in the Salt Palace Saturday night, complete with all the requisite trappings. Two key players, including the starting center and the club's first-round draft choice, were nowhere to be found. Injuries always seem to go with awful teams. Chaos? That, too, was present, though some say the Denver Nuggets have been in that since Day One.
In losing 121-110 to the Jazz, Denver truly looked the part of a team that has won a grand total of 19 games all year.Then there are the Jazz, who despite being only a half-game out of first place, looked curiously like the second-worst team in basketball.
"We're not excited or nothing," said Karl Malone, who tied his season high with 41 points. "It's ugly basketball. But a win is a win."
Ugly doesn't begin to describe what the Jazz have been looking like these days. In recent games they have struggled to beat four non-playoff teams (Dallas, Orlando, the L.A. Clippers and Denver) and lost to everyone else (Houston and the L.A. Lakers). They're winging their way toward the playoffs with the landing gear stuck.
"I'd hate to see us playing the last game of the season like we are now," said Jeff Malone, who added 33 points. "And then try to pick things up for the playoffs. Because we're not playing great basketball."
Only minutes into the game, the Jazz's fears began to be realized. Denver's frantic offense, which consists of two dribbles and a three-pointer, got the Nuggets out to a 16-8 lead. The Jazz, who have played six games in nine nights, were already beginning to wheeze.
"A lot of people suggested that we like to play from behind, ratherthan ahead," said Coach Jerry Sloan. "I don't know . . . I don't know."
While the Nuggets never threatened seriously to win the game, they remained close enough to give the Jazz considerable concern. With 7:45 remaining, Joe Wolf scored from the top of the key, pulling the Nuggets within one.
"We just didn't look very sharp," said Sloan.
Somehow, that wasn't a big surprise. The Jazz have spent an entire season playing down to the competition, and Denver presented a unique problem. Having lost 14 of their last 15 games and a franchise record 17 in a row on the road, the Nuggets were obviously a team the Jazz needed to worry about.
"Not knocking Denver, but we have a tendency to play to the level of the team we play. Then we just say, `Well, we can turn it on now,' " said Sloan.
Not only are the Nuggets the only team in the league without 20 wins, they are playing without at least three key players. Guard Todd Lichti has been out for months after knee surgery. Top draft choice Chris Jackson - the third pick overall in the draft - skipped the trip due to a sore left foot. And center Blair Rasmussen is out for the count with shoulder surgery.
What was left wasn't exactly a coach's dream.
Utah scored eight consecutive points at the end of the first quarter to go up 36-30, but with the Nuggets, no lead is safe. Soon they were settled in to a neck-and-neck battle, the Jazz trying to match the Nuggets in the number of poor shots they could take.
After leading just 61-58 at the half, the Jazz finally began to stretch things out. Malone led the way on an 8-0 run to put the Jazz ahead 83-69 5:01 to go in the third period.
But then the Jazz backed off. Malone, who had scored 34 of his points by then, no longer found himself in the inside, where he had been scoring at will. "We started playing selfish basketball - myself included," said the Mailman. "Basically we were scoring inside all night and then decided to start taking jump shots."
In the final period, there was some interest generated, but little of it had to do with playing basketball. The Nuggets' Michael Adams was thrown out of the game after referee Mike Mathis assessed that he had thrown an elbow at John Stockton.
"He took a swing at Stockton, that's all," explained Mathis.
Said Adams, "He said he saw me throw a punch and I didn't, so obviously he saw the wrong thing. Why would I do that? The referee jumped the gun anyway. When big guys are posting up and fighting for positions, they don't get thrown out. When guards so it, it's a flagrant foul."
Later, the game was stopped when a leaky roof caused water and insulation to fall on the court.
With Adams, who finished with 18 points, out of the game the Jazz began making plans to pull ahead. But reserve Kenny Battle had other ideas, scoring six quick points prior to Wolf's basket that pulled Denver to a 99-98 deficit.
But down the stretch Jeff Malone helped the Jazz pull away, thanks to a 13-point quarter.
With four games left, the Jazz continue to stay close to the Spurs in the Midwest Division, but privately wonder when the roof will fall in. Being within striking distance, and playing terribly, isn't a comfortable place to be.
"It's not a great feeling at all," said the Mailman. "Because we haven't been playing our game. Hopefully we will pick it up." Either that, or they'll be picking themselves up.
NOTES: Adams, who made nine three-pointers in the Nuggets' game on Friday, was 0-for-4 from three-point range against the Jazz . . . Karl Malone remains second in the NBA in scoring, third in rebounding and is among the leaders in minutes played . . . Mark Eaton is 7th in the NBA in blocks . . . John Stockton needs 26 assists in the next four games to break his own NBA assist mark for a season.