The Utah Jazz returned to the Salt Palace Saturday afternoon and, as usual, were leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Put them on the road, they're an accident waiting to happen. Bring them home, they're Norman Schwarzkopf.
Down two games to none in the best-of-seven conference semifinals, the Jazz changed the picture considerably by beating Portland 107-101. With a Sunday game scheduled at the Salt Palace, the question begs: Are the Jazz back? "We were never gone in the first place," said Jazz reserve Mike Brown. "It just took us two games to adjust.""A lot of people say we don't have a chance in this series," said Karl Malone. "We were down 2-0, and people had a lot of doubts about us. But we believe in ourselves, even if no one else does."
Three games into the series the Jazz have, in some respects, reversed the momentum. Portland won the opener by 20 points. The Blazers won the second game by only two after blowing a 23-point lead. But with the clubs set to meet again in Salt Lake, the Jazz are beginning to talk like a team with a plan. "It gives you the feeling this (Portland) team is not invincible," said Brown.
Perhaps the most curious turn of events has been underneath the basket, where the Jazz are beating the Blazers in a war of muscle and bulk. In Game 2, though the Jazz lost, they outrebounded Portland by 15. Saturday it was more of the same. Karl Malone led the Jazz with 21 rebounds as the Jazz outboarded the Blazers 56-46. "That's not as easily done as said," said Coach Jerry Sloan.
But to Sloan's relief, he's getting significant help he hasn't always had. Brown, who averaged four rebounds a game during the regular season, is averaging more than eight in the playoffs. Saturday, he had 12 boards in 25 minutes, his personal record for playoff games. "Mike is playing as well as we've seen him play," said Jazz guard John Stockton. "We know what he is capable of, and he's playing as well as he ever has."
With Brown continuing to rampage through the inside, the Jazz presented numerous problems for Portland. Karl Malone scored 30 points, Stockton 18 and Jeff Malone 25. "I thought everybody played well for us, except down the stretch," said Sloan.
Of course. The stretch. The Jazz built their lead up to 15 points with 5:13 to go in the game and appeared headed for a genuine blowout. But predictably, the Blazers made their run. Guard Danny Ainge poured in 15 points in the period - and picked up five personal fouls - to make the game close to the end. "When you have a little lead against a team like this, you can't get casual and cool," said Sloan.
As Saturday's nationally televised game tipped off, "casual" and "cool" weren't anywhere to be seen. The Salt Palace crowd worked itself into a festive standing ovation for the opening introductions. Once the ball was tipped up, the teams moved into a pounding, intense game. When Malone wasn't trading body slams with Buck Williams, Kevin Duckworth and Mark Eaton were thundering into one another. Even Stockton and Terry Porter took turns posting up against one another. "It's not more physical than any other game," said Karl Malone. "It's just the playoff intensity right now."
After settling for a tie at the end of the first quarter, the Jazz went on their first major run of the night, outscoring Portland 19-5. The Mailman's twisting shot underneath gave the Jazz a 47-33 lead with 2:56 to go in the half.
But soon Portland would be back in the Jazz's faces. Utah took several quick shots, and the Blazers went on a 13-2 run at the end of the period to cut the Jazz lead to three. "We took four of the most incredible shots I've ever seen in a game like this," said Sloan. "It darn near killed us."
If the Jazz muffed the finish of the half, the same could be said for Portland's third quarter. The Blazers made only four of 20 shots in the period. Starters Jerome Kersey, Williams, Duckworth and Clyde Drexler combined to make only one of 15 shots in that 12-minute span. Had it not been for Porter's three field goals, the Blazers would have been even farther behind than the 77-65 margin at the end of the period.
For Utah, Jeff Malone scored 12 of his 25 points in the third quarter. "I made a few baskets, then it went away for me, but that's no problem," he said.
Then it was the Jazz's turn to sweat. With Utah ahead 93-80, the Jazz went four minutes without making a field goal. Led by Ainge - who had two three-pointers in the period - Portland got the Jazz lead down to six with 1:11 remaining. But Utah made 17 of 19 free throws in the final period, including the last 12 straight to stay out of reach.
Jeff Malone made a technical foul and two other free throws with 35 seconds to go, giving the Jazz a 105-95 lead.
As quickly as the game had ended, the teams were looking ahead to Sunday's contest - a rare playoff back-to-back turn. While some have suggested the turnaround favors the Blazers - who have a deeper bench - the Mailman wasn't conceding anything. "We realize what we have to do and should be able to reach down and do it," he said.
Added the Blazers' Porter, "They (the Jazz) still realize it's going to be a dogfight tomorrow."