Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan on Tuesday's series opener with Portland: "I thought we hung in there with them except for that one stretch."
Which is like Iraq saying, "it was an even war until they started dropping bombs."Or like Johnstown saying, "it was a nice day until the flood."
The stretch Sloan referred to came late in the third quarter and continued into the fourth quarter. For nearly seven minutes - the equivalent of an eternity in Utah - the Jazz did not score a field goal. They shot 10 of them and didn't make one. Much to the delight of the 12,884 fans packed into Portland's Memorial Coliseum.
The Jazz would have been shut out entirely except they made three free throws.
In the meantime, the Portland Trail Blazers were scoring 21 points. Just like that, a 71-68 game turned into a 92-71 game. From there, the final nine minutes were a formality as the game coasted to its 117-97 conclusion. If Yogi Berra had been in the stands, he'd have left early.
For teams in the NBA playoffs, seven minute droughts are as welcome as early summer vacations. In the regular season, sometimes you can survive a long dry spell because the other team might decide to have one too. In the playoffs, you know your opponents' heart is going to be as cold as a Minnesota road trip. You can count on it. Give him an opening and all you can do is try to remember to duck.
It was the first dry spell in five playoff games to date by the Jazz. In their first-round triumph over Phoenix, they avoided prolonged scoreless stretches entirely (while the Suns did not). Their final quarter in the game four win that clinched the series was characterized by almost flawless, two-points-per-possession basketball.
Just why the Jazz decided to take a work break against the Trail Blazers when they trailed by just three points late in the third quarter was anybody's guess. "All I know is we were in the hunt when we were executing our offense," said Jazz guard John Stockton, "but you have to play that way for 48 minutes, not 43."
"Portland turned it up a notch," said Sloan, "and we had a stretch where we couldn't make a shot."
Portland guard Danny Ainge said the sudden turn of events in the second half surprised the Blazers.
"The Jazz just went into a cold streak," he said. "All of a sudden. Just like that. Obviously, that was the difference."
Ainge noted that the Coliseum crowd "got into it, and that didn't help the Jazz." He said it wasn't the first such run for the Blazers this year, or the first such crowd outburst, either. "That's happened a lot here," he said. "We rely on streaks. That's been a pattern. But normally, it's a tough thing to do against a team like Utah."
As NBA crowds go, Portland's is about 10 times more vocal than, say, the Lakers'. And that's when the Blazers aren't doing so well. Get the home town on a roll, and the crowd really starts shouting.
When the Jazz kept missing as the third quarter turned into the fourth, the noise level continued to rise. So did dozens of homemade signs around the arena, including a prominent one that said, "The Mailman Doesn't Deliver Here."
This, while Karl "The Mailman" Malone was in the midst of an 0-for-10 third quarter.
"Karl kept missing and I think he started second-guessing himself," said the Blazers' Buck Williams, who was guarding the Mailman.
Added Sloan, "It's easier to shoot when you're up than when you're down."
On the Blazers' side, the 21-3 run was fueled in large part by guard Clyde Drexler, who scored six points during the run and had several key rebounds and assists after being kneed in the ribs by Karl Malone. "Getting kicked in the ribs really fired me up. I think it really fired all of us up," said Drexler.
At any rate, it leaves the Jazz wiser as they head into game two Thursday night, also in the Coliseum. If they're going to make a series of it with the Blazers in Portland - and they have to win at least one game here to get the required four wins to move on in the playoffs - they can't afford any prolonged stretches that keep them off the scoreboard and that bring the fans into the game. And they better stay away from Drexler's ribs.
As Malone said in hindsight, "we just can't have any more lapses like that." Winning in Portland is hard enough without taking a timeout - when the Blazers are still on the floor.