AFTER SEVEN minutes of the best basketball played on the planet Earth Sunday night, and, perhaps poetically, in the history of the Salt Palace, the Jazz boarded a plane for Portland and threw away their rearview mirror.
Down three games to one after finally blinking at the buzzer in Sunday's 104-101 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Jazz can now only afford to look to the future. They are on the verge, with one more loss, of not playing again at home this season, and of not playing in the Salt Palace again ever.The Jazz may very well win in Portland Tuesday night. They showed with yet another fourth-quarter comeback Sunday that the Blazers can't ever count them out. But if they don't force a sixth game in the Salt Palace; if they don't "Think Thursday," as the Jazz fans chanted as they left the arena, there will have been worse games the Salt Palace - which will close next season in favor of the new arena being built two blocks to the west - could have called it an era on. Even if it was a Utah loss.
For nearly seven full minutes, from the 6:56 mark of the fourth quarter until the 17-second mark, the Jazz and Trail Blazers got caught up in a basket-for-basket exchange that was the basketball equivalent of a Thomas Hearns fight.
It was two good teams throwing their best shots at each other. The defenses were good but not as good as the offenses. Tough baskets were matched by tough baskets. There was an answer for everything. Watching it was like watching a seven-minute long tennis rally.
Curiously, the game had been anything but a slugfest prior to the last seven minutes. The Trail Blazers, showing off the depth of their bench, took control early on as both teams appeared tired from the game played just the afternoon before - a 107-101 Jazz win. Then the Jazz, at the start of the fourth quarter, grabbed control. They went on a 16-2 run to erase what had been a 14-point Portland advantage at the start of the quarter and take an 85-84 lead of their own.
The Salt Palace was rocking at this point. The building was not going out with a whimper.
But after the Jazz got their 85-84 lead at 6:56, the Blazers ended their workbreak, and the floor was set for what Portland Coach Rick Adelman called "classic basketball."
"Nobody stopped anybody," said Portland guard Danny Ainge, who watched from the bench, "and everybody was trying."
The exchange, in case you're still keeping score, went like this: A Jeff Malone jump shot answered by a Kevin Duckworth jump shot answered by a Karl Malone layup answered by a Duckworth hook answered by a Mike Brown short jumper answered by a Clyde Drexler layup answered by a Brown layup answered by two Jerome Kersey free throws answered by two Karl Malone free throws answered by two Terry Porter free throws answered by a Karl Malone layup answered by a Duckworth short jumper answered by a John Stockton layup answered by a Duckworth jumpshot answered by a Stockton layup answered by two Duckworth free throws answered by a Karl Malone jump shot answered by a Drexler jump shot.
Drexler's shot came with 36 seconds remaining, giving Portland a 102-101 lead but giving the Jazz the ball. At 17 seconds, however, Drexler stepped in front of a pass intended for Thurl Bailey and stopped the bleeding, at least for Portland. Two Porter free throws at :13 closed out the scoring.
The Jazz tried two three-point shots near the buzzer in an attempt to send the game into overtime. The last try, by Karl Malone, was close but bounced away, leaving the Jazz in a big 3-games-to-1 hole but leaving their 12,616 fans in their seats.
For a few seconds after the game ended, nobody moved . . . and then as the Jazz filed out of the arena, perhaps for the last time, the applause began, and then swelled.
After hundreds of basketball games in the past 20 years, Salt Palace fans knew good basketball theatre when they'd seen it.
"That's about as exciting as it gets," said Portland's Drexler.
The Jazz, of course, aren't buying any of the talk that the Salt Palace is finished and so are they. "We can't go to Portland and turn it into a summer league game up there," said Karl Malone. "We've got to go thinking we can win it. We've got to get back here Thursday."
That's a tall order, given the Blazers' penchant for winning at home, and their desire not to come back to a building they'd won in only twice in their last 20 tries prior to Sunday's win. "Oh, that would be great if we shut down this place," said Ainge as the Blazers left for home.
Whatever the case, the last game played in the Salt Palace - to date - was memorable, if nothing else. One team played its very best so it could turn on the lights another night. The other team played its best so it could turn them off for good.