These days, it isn't just the Mailman who is being pursued by inquiring minds. It's the playoffs, and that means more press everywhere. Even those who don't play seem to get some air time or ink. Still, it was a strange scene Tuesday night after the Jazz had beaten the Suns, 107-98 at the Salt Palace. As Karl Malone made his way to his dressing area, a large crowd of reporters was gathered, waiting for bits and pieces - from Mike Brown.
For most of this season, Brown - whose locker is adjacent to Malone's - has been a pit stop on the way to the Mailman. Excuse me, Mike. Pardon me, Mike. Could I get to Karl? But lately, he's become a destination rather than a connecting stop. "It feels claustrophobic," Brown said. "This is the first time all year."Certainly finding the game's Most Important Player wasn't easy. The Mailman was at his normal cruising altitude, coming through with 32 points and 10 rebounds. John Stockton contributed 18 points, two steals and 12 assists. Jeff Malone, though off the mark, finished with 14 points and six rebounds.
But this time it was more than the Three Amigos. Brown came off the bench to spell a foul-plagued Mark Eaton, playing 28 minutes and registering personal playoff highs in both points and rebounds . Blue Edwards added 22 points and a season-high 10 rebounds.
"The thing is," pointed out the Mailman, "is that to win night in and night out, you have to see more than three guys."
And so they did. Brown, who played just one minute in the first quarter, suddenly came on to collect six rebounds in the second period alone, scoring six points. Edwards ran up six rebounds and scored 14 points in the fourth quarter.
"You look at all three games," said Edwards. "Karl's been scoring like he has all year. But you look like guys like Mike and myself and some others, we've added something extra. We need to continue that."
The Jazz's first playoff home game came off as a group affair from the start. Promoters got the home crowd into the game quickly by passing out 10,000 glow-in-the-dark, green and purple fluorescent hoops, to be used when the lights went down for introductions. Another 10,000 placards bearing the admonition "Beat the Suns" also found their way into the hands of fans.
A $2,500 indoor fireworks show was presented, just to make sure the crowd was worked up to a playoff pitch. Players had to walk through a haze of smoke to find the center circle at tipoff.
"There's one more left," said the Mailman, asking that his comments be directed to the home crowd. "Tell 'em to come back on Thursday and do the same thing."
The game's early moments bore a striking resemblance to the other two games, with the Jazz shooting well and the Suns playing impersonators of their real selves. Utah hit its first four shots, while Phoenix was considerably cooler.
But as quickly as they began, the Jazz went into a frigid streak of poor shooting. After making four consecutive shots, they connected on only four of their next 18. Meanwhile, the Suns came back to make 13 of their first 21 shots to lead 27-19 at the end of the first period.
"It was a game of streaks," said Jazz center Mark Eaton, "but then you know playoff games are like that."
The emergence of Brown in the second quarter, along with the Mailman's 10 points, kept the Jazz close. But with 1:31 remaining in the half, Kevin Johnson made one of two free throws to put the Suns ahead 47-42. Then came the game's most surprising moments. Brown stuffed in a shot, Jeff Malone hit a layup and Edwards stole the ball and went in for a 180-degree slam. After a Phoenix miss, Stockton landed a three-pointer. The Jazz suddenly went from a five-point deficit to a four-point halftime lead.
The lead, however, didn't last. After getting as far as seven points behind in the third quarter, the Suns reeled off nine straight points to take the lead. The Jazz ended the period holding to a one-point lead.
The last quarter was all flying bodies and flying elbows. Phoenix center Mark West picked up his fifth personal foul with 7:45 to go after grabbing Brown in the open court by the shirt. Suns' swingman Dan Majerle went down after apparently being poked in the eye by Karl Malone.
The Jazz's aggressiveness had its effect. They finished with an almost unheard of (for them) 16 offensive rebounds.
"They knocked us around and beat us up and we let them push us around," said the Suns' Xavier McDaniel. "We have to come out and push a few bodies to the floor and show them we can play just as physical."
In the final five minutes of the game, the Jazz began to inch ahead. Edwards gathered in a missed shot and put it in with 3:31 to go, giving the Jazz a 91-88 lead. Then the Jazz reeled off six more points while the Suns missed on the other end.
Faced with a full-court Suns defense, the Jazz put the game away by making 12 straight free throws in the final 4:17.
Having taken a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series, the Jazz can wrap it up on Thursday night in the Salt Palace, 8:30 p.m. A loss would mean returning to Phoenix for the finale. So the Jazz have two chances to win the series and move on to play in the second round. Or do they? "No," said the Mailman. "We've got one chance. I'll tell you point blank, we don't want to go back to Phoenix."