Fifteen minutes after it had all ended Thursday night, the Utah Jazz didn't know whether to laugh, cry or howl at the moon. They had trailed by 23 points and been given up for road kill along Interstate 5, only to roar back and tie the score with 14 seconds to go. But all their effort would come to a sudden, frustrating end. Terry Porter's inside shot with 3.6 seconds to go sealed their fate: Portland 118, Jazz 116.
"This stuff," said Jazz backup guard Delaney Rudd, "is going to give me a heart attack."The Jazz's trip to the Pacific Northwest confirmed all their fears. The Blazers are faster, more confident and perhaps even hungrier. Utah's hopes of winning games by controlling the tempo, boxing out and playing unflinching defense aren't materializing into any wins.
"We're not better than they are," said Jazz Coach Jerrry Sloan. "We've got to play extremely well and have everything go well in order to beat them."
But so far that hasn't happened. Two games into the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals, the Jazz have nothing to show but bruises. Moral victories? "I don't believe in that (expletive) at all," said Sloan. "I believe in winning."
"I don't think so," said guard John Stockton. "It's still a loss in the book."
If anyone was qualified to declare the outcome unsatisfactory, it was Stockton. He and Karl Malone led a relentless charge in the last period, scoring 12 and 20 points, respectively. It was Stockton's three-point desperation buzzer shot that skipped off the rim that would have given them a shocking comeback victory.
The Trail Blazers stretched the lead to 94-71 early in the fourth quarter, then settled in to wait it out.
As large as Portland's lead became, it apparently wasn't enough. The Jazz's two highest-paid players demonstrated why they are down the stretch. Malone finished with a career playoff-high 40 points; Stockton had 20 points. Before the game had ended the Blazers were looking furtively at the clock and hoping time would run out before they did. "It was ugly down the stretch," said Blazers' center Kevin Duckworth, "but a two-point win is as good as a 30-point win."
For all their determination in a game that appeared hopeless, the Jazz finished in a bad state nonetheless. They have now lost five of six times this season against Portland. Although back home in the Salt Palace for Saturday (1:30 p.m.) and Sunday (6 p.m.) games, their hopes are fading like a mist off the Willamette.
"A lot of people say it's going to be over in four games," said the Mailman, "but we'll see."
For the better part of Thursday night, the Jazz looked entirely the part of a four-game victim. Although they were surprisingly out-rebounding the Blazers (43-28) and shooting a decent percentage (.481), they hadn't come close to threatening.
"We were taking perimeter shots and we had all four guys standing on the perimeter watching," said Sloan. "You've got to go after balls when you know the shot's going up."
Meanwhile, the Blazers were putting together a standard-issue win. They kept the Jazz in check early, then began to pull away late in the first half. Utah took its last lead of the night, 35-34, on a Stockton jumper, but Danny Ainge responded by scoring on a fast-break layup.
Soon to follow were a series of crowd-pleasing shots, including two straight three-pointers by Clyde Drexler. At the end of the first half Portland outscored the Jazz 18-6.
The Blazers' lead swelled in the third period, thanks to 10 points by Porter and 13 from Jerome Kersey. Kersey finished with a personal playoff-best 34 points.
The game had its moments of emotion and hard contact even before the final minutes. Stockton's head was stepped on in the third period after he fell during a layup. Portland forward Mark Bryant left the gym for a time after being hurt during the same period. But that was only a warmup to the intense finish.
The Blazers led 87-71 going into the fourth period, but late in the game the Jazz got rolling. The Jazz went on a 12-1 run and closed the Portland lead to 10 points with 5:07 to go. Meanwhile, the Blazers would go the final eight minutes scoring only one field goal until Porter's game-winner.
The Jazz shot 20 free throws in the final period as they coaxed pass after pass in to the Mailman, who made 10 straight free throws in that span.
Malone tied up Danny Ainge for a jump with 37 seconds left, then landed a shot to six seconds later. After Clyde Drexler missed a layup, Cliff Robinson committed a foul. Malone made two free throws to tie the score at the 14-second mark.
Drexler's pass inside to Porter for the game-winner was partially deflected by Jazz forward Mike Brown, but it went right to Porter, who laid it up.
That left a grand total of 3.6 seconds for the Jazz, who after a timeout got the ball to Stockton. He dribbled momentarily, then cast off his errant shot at the buzzer.
"We were trying to get something going to the basket, but time was running down," said Stockton. "I had to take a little shot at it. I didn't get it."
With the series returning to Utah, the Jazz's only consolation is that they have beaten the Blazers 17 of the last 19 games in the Salt Palace. But with two wins this week and plans to be still playing in June, Portland is right on course.
"You could see guys getting casual in the last eight minutes," said Drexler. "But we did hold on to win and we have to be glad about that."