After a fourth quarter last night in the Salt Palace that will in time become a highlight film in and of itself, the Jazz won't be singing the first round loser blues this playoff season. No three strikes and you're out for them. Not this time. For a change, it's the other team looking for a psychiatrist's couch. Namely, the Phoenix Suns, who at this moment can be found wandering in the Arizona desert wondering if that really happened in Utah, or was it all a bad hallucination.
The transformation was as dramatic as it was sudden. There the Jazz were, walking the playoff plank again, heading for the bottom of the abyss, which is to say a summer of having people walk up to them in supermarkets and ask, "what happened?"They were trailing the Suns by two, 71-69, two minutes into the final quarter of play. They had made 23 of 61 field goals so far in the game, for a chilly .377 percentage. From the line they were 21 of 29 for a so-so .724. The only reason the game was so close was because Phoenix wasn't shooting any better.
It looked for all the world like the stage was set for another late-game Jazz playoff snooze. Such a close score on the Jazz's home floor at the gateway to crunch time did not bode well at all - not for a team that was whisked out of the last two playoffs in the first round because down the stretch it tended to look like a miler who'd entered the 100-meter dash.
But that was then and this was now, and when Thurl Bailey made two free throws at the 10:31 mark of the fourth quarter to tie the score at 71-71, a memorable stretch of basketball was just beginning.
In the next seven minutes and 24 seconds, from 10:31 to 3:07, the Jazz scored points on 15 of 16 possessions, they made 10 of 12 field goals, they made 10 of 11 free throws, they had three steals and one blocked shot, and they held the Suns to just four field goals, the same total as their turnovers, and just 14 total points.
The 30-14 run transformed a 71-69 Suns lead into a 99-85 Jazz advantage, and sent thousands of fans running outside to get in line for playoff tickets to the second round, which will begin as soon as Portland and Seattle decide which one gets the Jazz next.
Bailey had the two points that triggered the amazing seven-minute streak, while Karl Malone added 11 points, Jeff Malone eight points and a steal, Mike Brown a steal and six points, including an artistic slam dunk that started somewhere just north of Pioneer Park and will serve forevermore as the signature shot of the run, and Stockton had five points, a steal and a blocked shot.
The Suns had a headache. Until this turnaround, they had maintained constant control of a game so pumped by adrenalin it was mostly brawn and little finesse. Phoenix led by five at halftime, and was once up by as many as nine. The Suns seemed to have the Jazz talking to themselves and on the verge of losing composure - as exemplified at the start of the fourth quarter when Karl Malone was whistled for a technical foul for elbowing the Suns' Xavier McDaniel after Phoenix's Andrew Lang fouled Malone.
But inexplicably, the technical - which the Suns made - was the beginning of the end for them, not the Jazz, who, in the end, were able to afford themselves the luxury of slowing down the pace and scoring just two free throws in the final 3:07 of the game, while Phoenix scored eight points in a furious and futile attempt at coming back.
Last year, when the Suns and Jazz met in a pivotal series-deciding Game 5 in the Salt Palace, it was the Suns who prevailed in the crunch time of the fourth quarter and moved on to round two.
The year before, the Jazz lost in three straight games to Golden State and were summarily dismissed from the playoffs. And in 1987, they lost to Golden State in five games in the first round, dropping the last three.
"We finally got the monkey off our back," said Karl Malone as he sat in the locker room wearing a black T-shirt with the inscription, You Can Talk the Game, But Can You Play the Game? "We have had our doubters and our critics," he went on. "This is probably the biggest win we've been a part of."
And definitely the biggest fourth quarter. As stretch runs go, they don't get much better than this. It's hard to score on 15 of 16 possessions, and make 10 of 12 shots, when nobody's guarding you, let alone a team from Phoenix that lasted through three playoff rounds a year ago and whose sole purpose in life was to get on a plane for Arizona the next morning, and take you with them.
"For once, for just one time, people should give us credit," said Malone. And you've got to agree he has a point. If not making it out of the first round of the playoffs makes you a target for skeptics, making it out should mean just the opposite.