Despite all the excitement and anticipation of the previous 24 hours, the final moments of the regular season had a familiar, flat feeling to the Utah Jazz. They sat quietly in the dressing room, appearing as surprised as anyone. The old, reliable excuse of being tired was once again a topic of discussion. Was it really fatigue? Or nerves? Perhaps the alignment of the stars. Would you believe, something they ate?
Who knows. Having dominated Golden State in three games this season, the Jazz meekly bowed out with a season-ending 125-106 loss to the Warriors at Oakland Coliseum, Sunday. Next stop: Phoenix, Ariz., the site of some of the Jazz's worst experiences ever.But let's take it one disaster at a time.
As odd as it may seem, Magic Johnson and the Lakers were far less equipped to handle the Jazz on Saturday - which they didn't - than were the Warriors the following afternoon. Golden State's Big Three of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin were there in full force, as good as advertised. But the Jazz had far more problems than that. Someone named Mario Elie, who started the season pulling down $500 a week in the CBA, came off the bench to score an unexpected 12 points. (Elie's history looks more like a soldier of fortune's than a basketball player's. He has played in in Portugal, Argentina, Ireland and Miami - not for the Heat, for the USBL team there - before joining on with Albany of the CBA.)
There's more. Jim Peterson, the seven-year veteran whose main claim to fame is perhaps that he was acquired in a trade for Ralph Sampson, pulled down six rebounds in only 10 minutes. Even the ever-popular Paul Mokeski, who has played for five teams in 11 years, got into the act, landing a three-pointer when the game was no longer in doubt.
"Well," mused Warriors Coach Don Nelson, "I hope that answers some of the critics who said that we wouldn't be eager to play or that we might not take this game seriously. We took it quite seriously and played one of our best games of the year. It couldn't happen at a better time. I know it was a big game for them and that was obvious. People didn't know it was a big game for us."
Ah, yes. The Big Game. The Jazz spent virtually all of the season trying to get in position for Sunday's event. They stretched, scratched, climbed, wheezed and prayed their way to the final day, finally getting a break when Denver beat San Antonio on Friday. On Saturday, they handled the Lakers in Salt Lake, putting themselves in the position to claim no worse than a tie for the Midwest Division title and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Certainly Sunday's game didn't pose an insurmountable problem. The Jazz had already beaten the Warriors three times this season. Speculation in Bay Area papers was that Golden State, faced with a choice of meeting San Antonio or Utah, would much prefer meeting the Admiral-less Jazz. All they needed to do was roll over and play dead, giving the Jazz their win, and wait for the playoffs to start in Salt Lake.
However, that didn't happen. With the Spurs whipping Dallas and Phoenix beating Portland on Sunday, the Jazz ended up back where they were last year, meeting the Suns in a best-of-five series. But unlike last year, this time the Suns have the home court advantage. Utah is seeded fifth in the eight-team conference race, Phoenix fourth. The first game is Thursday at Veteran's Memorial Coliseum.
"Phoenix has always been tough for us. They've usually had a couple of guys out. Last year we beat them at their place for the first time in what seems like 700 years," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan.
Although the Jazz have had their problems with Golden State, as well Phoenix, this year that wasn't the case. In their two meetings in Salt Lake, the Jazz won by an average of more than 16 points. Faced with meeting the Warriors in Oakland, they won 109-104 in February.
But before the Jazz ever got into a rhythm Sunday, the Warriors had established a commanding lead. As the Jazz missed five of their first seven shots - leaning back and taking perimeter shots - the Warriors made five of their first nine, jumping ahead 14-5. The familiar road-weary look the Jazz have worn most of the year was back.
The Warriors' fast break was clicking and the lead had soon ballooned to 11. Richmond, who finished the game with 32 points, had 12 in the first period.
"They were all over us," said Jazz guard Jeff Malone. "We were flat. I was very disappointed."
While Richmond was on his way to a great night, the Jazz's Mailman started off like a skateboard in mud. He missed six of his first nine shots, finally landing his first shot from 17 feet out with 5:42 to go in the quarter. "I didn't get off to a good start," said Malone. "To be reasonable, I realize I have to play well early. Maybe I didn't take such great shots at the start. It's just one of those things."
Behind by eight after a quarter, the Jazz continued to fall. Their pride and joy - smash-face defense - wasn't in effect. The three scoring stars of the Warriors continued, but soon began getting extra help. Peterson came on to pull in six rebounds and score three points in the second quarter, subbing in for center Alton Lister. The Warriors led by 15 at the break.
Things never got close again. While the Jazz continued shooting on their so-so 45 percent pace, the Warriors to enjoyed a better than 60 percent success rate most of the afternoon. The lead went to 17, and eventually to 24, before the Jazz sent in the subs for the last five minutes of the game.
Despite a poor start, the Mailman finished with a team-high 32. Richmond was joined by Mullin, who contributed 28 points, and Hardaway with 21.
By the time the players had dressed, they were already working on getting into a "look-to-the-future" frame of mind. Regular season results sometimes become old history in a matter of hours. "Our guys did a heck of a job and we can't be upset if they had a bad game," said Sloan. "Tomorrow's another day."
Albeit a slightly cloudy one.
As for blowing the chance to tie for their first Midwest Division crown since 1989, the Jazz made no excuses. "You always think you have a chance," said the Mailman of the Jazz's efforts to come back. "We had a chance. We just didn't do it."
NOTES: The Jazz's win over the Lakers on Saturday tied a franchise record for home victories . . . Utah's 18 wins on the road was their second-best ever and their 54 overall wins was also their second-best. . . Karl Malone finished second in the NBA in scoring (29 ppg) and fourth in rebounding (11.9) . . . John Stockton led the league (14.2) in assists. Jeff Malone's two free throws put him in second place in the league (.916) in free throws.