After first-round playoff failures the past two years, the Jazz made a move last summer designed to get over the hump and into the second round. They acquired all-star guard Jeff Malone from the Washington Bullets.
For most of Thursday night's game, Jazz fans were probably wishing Malone was back in Washington the way he was throwing up bricks as the Jazz were losing. At one point Malone was ZERO for 10 from the field. But Malone came through when it counted and was instrumental in bringing the Jazz from a five-point deficit late in the third period to a fairly comfortable win over Phoenix.Malone scored 19 points, including seven of eight shots during the final 16 minutes of the game, and helped vault the Jazz into the NBA second round against either Portland or Seattle next week.
"I dreamed of this day," said Malone, who had never advanced past the first round in five playoff tries with the Bullets. "This was a very satisfying victory for me individually and for the team."
Malone says he has felt the pressure ever since he came to Utah in the trade involving Bobby Hansen and Eric Leckner last June. "I came out here and people would see me walking the street and say, `Are you the guy who's going to get us through the first round?"' Malone didn't say what his answer was, but he knew what was expected of him.
In Thursday's contest, perhaps the biggest game since Malone became a Jazzman, he seemed to be wilting under the weight on his shoulders. He missed nine straight shots the first half and had his first attempt of the second half blocked. And worse, the Jazz were losing by five.
"I haven't had a night like that all season" said Malone. "I just felt like they would never go in for me. I was wondering when I'd ever make one."
He finally did late in the third quarter when he nailed a 14-footer from the corner to pull the Jazz within three at 64-61. Then after a Thurl Bailey rebound shot, Malone gave the Jazz their first lead since early in the second quarter when he sank a 12-footer out front. He followed that with a 10-foot baseline jumper to give the Jazz a 67-66 lead at the end of the quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, Malone, who had seven rebounds from his guard position, went inside, grabbed a miss by Karl Malone and banked it home to put the Jazz ahead 77-73. Then as the Jazz extended their lead down the stretch, Malone swished three more jumpers from beyond 15 feet, the latter giving the Jazz their biggest lead at 99-85.
"Those type of things happen," said Malone of his misses. "I didn't panic and tried to stay with it. I hung in there and got it done down the stretch when it counted."
With the Phoenix series behind them, the Jazz and Malone can relax for a little while because Seattle's upset win Thursday is keeping Portland busy another couple of days.
"I looked up there with a minute or two left and saw Seattle beat Portland. I was happy because now we get a little break," said Malone.
Malone said he would prefer Seattle to win the series so the Jazz could have the homecourt advantage. He also thinks the Jazz match up better with the Sonics. But he wouldn't mind the Blazers either. The guy who got the Jazz through the first round is just happy to be playing in the second round. "We'll be ready for anybody," he said.