The Utah Jazz's official spokesman/analyst/clairvoyant, Karl Malone, settled into his locker cubicle and declared Thursday night's 101-93 win over the Phoenix Suns a Big Deal. The victory, which moved the Jazz into the second round of the NBA Playoffs, marked the first time since 1988 they have gone past the first round. It was also ended a drought that has included first-round exits in four of the last five years.
The Jazz are back in the playoffs as a serious contender, no longer doomed to taking their summer vacations in late April or early May."For this organization," said Malone, "this is as big a win as I've been a part of. Finally, we got the monkey off our backs."
And so it was, to a roaring crowd, the Jazz pulled away in the final period and began making plans for the next round, which will entail a trip to the Pacific Northwest. The Jazz will play the winner of the Portland-Seattle series, probably next Tuesday.
If anyone had the right to proclaim a major victory, it had to be the Mailman. It was he who promised (predicted?) almost two weeks ago that this year would be different; this year there would be no early exit. Consequently, on a night when the Jazz were wrapping up the series three games to one, he played 46 minutes of jarring basketball, tying his career playoff high with 38 points and collecting 13 rebounds.
Nobody had more to say about the Jazz's last week than Malone.
But with the next round looming, even the Mailman wasn't going to make any further promises. "No," he said. "I promised you this one. I'm gonna wait awhile."
Waiting has been, of course, a recurring theme this spring for the Jazz. They waited until the final day of the season to see if they would share or win the Midwest Division title outright. No soap. They waited four games for Phoenix's Kevin Johnson to finally break out of his awful playoff slump. It never occurred. By Thursday night, they were still waiting. Jeff Malone, the team's renowned fadeaway artist, put them on hold for the first 32 minutes of the contest, missing his first 10 shots. Finally, he landed a jumper from the left angle late in the third quarter, and was on his way.
He finished the game making seven of his final eight shots for 19 points. "When he gets it going, he gets it going," said Jazz center Mark Eaton.
As diligent as the Suns were at trying to reverse their fortunes, by Game 4 the Fates seemed to have stepped in. While the Jazz were shooting an atrocious 30 percent for the first half, Phoenix could make little use of the situation. At the midway point they were only leading the Jazz by five points. "We knew if we hung in there and executed our game plan, we'd get a run sooner or later," continued Eaton.
But the rally didn't come any too soon. After cutting the Suns' lead to three, the Jazz coughed up three straight baskets and found themselves trailing by nine. However poor the Jazz's shooting was, the Mailman continued to roll. After a 19-point first half, he totaled six of the Jazz's first 12 points of the second half. But an improbable one-handed bank shot closed the Suns' lead to three points with 4:46 left in the third quarter. "I know a couple of shots went in for me tonight that were pretty crazy," said Malone.
Soon to follow was Jeff Malone's entry into the scoring competition. He finally scored his first basket with 3:50 left in the third quarter, then added two more before the period ended, the second one giving Utah a 67-64 lead.
The Mailman started closing the door on the Suns early in the final quarter, landing two straight jumpers for a 75-71 lead. Then came the Jazz's final push. Mike Brown, who again played a phenomenal game off the bench (12 points, eight rebounds), dribbled half the court for a slam-dunk. John Stockton followed with a three-point play and the Mailman added two free throws to put the Jazz ahead by nine.
Jeff Malone contributed a steal and two straight baseline jumpers, the second giving the Jazz the game's biggest lead - 14 points - with 3:07 to go. The Jazz outscored Phoenix 30-14 in a seven-minute span in the fourth period, scoring on 15 of 16 possessions.
Before long the Salt Palace crowd was in an uproar and the Jazz were putting on the finishing touches. In the final period Brown had eight points, Jeff Malone eight and Karl Malone 11, which totaled the same amount as the entire Suns team. "Yeah, I was mentally into it," said the Mailman. "I was definitely into it."
Said Eaton, "That's about as intense as I've seen him."
The final boxscore reflected the troubles the Suns' had from the onset of the playoffs. Johnson, the team's leader, made only six of 19 shots and missed four of nine free throws. Dan Majerle, playing with a swollen eye, was 1-for-4 and contributed just three points. The Jazz out-rebounded the Suns by 10, including 13 offensive boards.
"We have to take a look at the films and see what we have to do now in the off-season. We've had a good season, but we want to improve now for next year," said Suns' Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons.
No sooner had the final horn sounded than the Jazz players went into a brief period of celebration, then retired to the dressing room. They were finally back to winning first round series and had avoided the dreaded fifth-game trip to Phoenix.
"In the locker room before the game, nobody panicked," said Jeff Malone. "But in the back of our minds, we knew we just couldn't go back to Phoenix. That would not have been a good sign."