If you like driving with your lights out, investing in real estate, or just plain living on the edge, you've got to love the Utah Jazz. Evel Knievel never had anything on them. They've never met a suspense movie or roller coaster they didn't like.
Down to the final two days of the NBA season, the Jazz built a 22-point lead in the second half, only to see it dwindle to four points before hanging on to beat the L.A. Lakers 107-93, Saturday at the Salt Palace. Now there's just one game remaining, and still the Jazz don't know who they will be playing in the first round of the NBA playoffs.Nothing like a good cliff-hanger to keep the Jazz and their fans interested.
The win moved Utah into a tie for the Midwest Division lead with San Antonio, going into Sunday's 4 p.m. (MDT) game at Golden State. Meanwhile, San Antonio hosts Dallas. If the Jazz win, or if both teams lose on Sunday, the Jazz would be seeded No. 2 in the Western Conference and meet Golden State in the first round.
Given up for dead earlier in the week - when San Antonio kept its lead by defeating Houston - the Jazz had already begun to talk about finishing second and being seeded fourth or fifth against Phoenix in the playoffs. But by Friday night all that had changed, thanks to the Spurs' loss to Denver. "I had to look at that score twice," said Jazz center Mark Eaton.
Saturday morning brought more optimism to the Jazz than they have had since the opening of the season. NBC television was there, hunkered down for the national television broadcast. So was Jazz President Frank Layden, working the game for NBA Radio Network. Several thousand "Beat L.A." placards had been passed out and fans were in a celebratory mood. During one timeout, an enthused fan walked around the arena holding a sign that said "Thank you Denver."
The Jazz were back in the title business.
Consequently, they needed no inspirational messages to get ready to play the Lakers. "We didn't need any pep talks," said Karl Malone.
Needing motivation least of all was the Mailman. While other teammates went out early to warm up, Malone languished in the locker room. Emerging with teammate Delaney Rudd, he pointed to a reporter and said, "They're (the Lakers) getting their butts kicked. Write that down."
True to his prediction, the Mailman was after the Lakers from the opening tipoff, ringing up Utah's first eight points. By the time the first quarter was half gone, the Jazz were leading 19-8 and making plans to reject the Lakers like a bad movie script. Jeff Malone threw one up in traffic that went in. John Stockton landed a three-pointer. Mark Eaton took an air ball down and put it back in.
"The Jazz played unbelievable in the first half, but they are fighting for the Midwest Division and they played like it," said Lakers' center Vlade Divac.
If the Lakers came out flat, it could be excused. Already locked into the No. 3 playoff spot, having finished behind Portland in the Pacific Division, the game had only minor ramifications for them. They played it that way, using starters Byron Scott and Magic Johnson only 24 minutes apiece, James Worthy 27 minutes and Sam Perkins 28 minutes. In the crucial fourth quarter, when the Lakers had cut Utah's lead to 10 points, Divac (10 minutes) and Perkins (one minute) were the only starters even to play.
"The guys I had in were playing better," said Lakers' Coach Mike Dunleavy.
Although the Jazz charged out to a 22-point lead early in the third quarter, a brief incident between Malone and the Lakers' bench stopped the Jazz's momentum. Divac blocked a Mailman shot underneath and they went to the floor, tangling their legs up in the process. When Malone got up, he began shouting toward the Lakers' bench. Dunleavy stepped in front of the Mailman, who gave a shove to the Lakers' coach.
"The way I saw it, he was coming after somebody on our bench and I'm the only guy allowed on the floor, so I just stepped in front of him, try to keep him off," said Dunleavy. "He's lucky I didn't push him back . . . With his bankroll, I should have let him hit me."
Malone called the incident "nothing" and said he had been talking to a Lakers' assistant coach named Randy Pfund. "I know him," said the Mailman afterward. "I was trying to get close to hear what he said."
Said Pfund, "I think he thought I said something. I was yelling at the refs. Thank heaven Mike stepped in front of him. I didn't see anyone else."
The delay, in which no technicals were assessed, helped detour the Jazz. The Lakers went on an 18-6 run to pull within 10 by the end of the period.
L.A. continued to come back in the fourth period, closing Utah's lead to 92-88 with 5:17 to go, on Divac's free throws. But the Jazz got rolling again, running off five unanswered points. Mike Brown led the final surge, scoring 10 points in the period. The finishing touches were added when Jeff Malone sank a free throw and Brown hit two more, for a 102-90 lead with 2:28 left.
The Mailman finished with 30 points to lead the Jazz, while Brown and Thurl Bailey turned in strong performances off the bench, scoring 14 and 16 points, respectively.
Divac's 19 was high for the Lakers.
Having dispatched the Lakers and won their last four straight, the Jazz have finally worked themselves back to where they can decide their future - which wasn't the case 24 hours earlier. "You have to be able to get to the dance, and now we feel we are there and have the momentum to do some things," said Stockton. "Who knows what will happen from here?"
Certainly not the Jazz. They never know what will happen until they get there.
If the Jazz win today they will...
..do no worse than tie for the division title..
...be seeded No. 2 in the West and play Golden State
...tie a franchise record with 55 wins, set last year...
...earn approximately $4,000 apiece for being division winners.
If the Jazz lose today they will...
...finish second, unless San Antonio also loses.
...have the second-best record in franchise history.
...Play Phoenix in the playoffs.
...have the home court advantage if Phoenix loses to Portland.