After agonizing through his second ulcer-inducing, nail-biting basketball game in a week, Portland Coach Rick Adelman was sweating like he'd spent a week in the sauna. Small wonder. The Blazers had led by as many as 17 points, only to see their lead vanish - again. But as was the case before, they survived the scare, beating the Jazz 104-101 at the Salt Palace Sunday night.
"That's a classic game," said Adelman. "In the fourth period both teams executed, both teams wouldn't die, both teams wouldn't break," he said. "Finally we got a break in the end."In the process, hearts were breaking all over Utah, where the Jazz could well be down to the final days of the season. To avoid extinction, they must beat the Blazers in Portland Tuesday night (8 p.m. MDT), a prospect that doesn't appear promising.
"This series isn't over and we just have to go up and play hard and stay in there like we did in the final quarter today," said the Jazz's Jeff Malone. "We wanted to tie the series up and put some pressure on these guys . . . but it's not over."
Regardless of the outcome of Sunday's game, nobody, not even the losing Jazz, could deny the game was a spellbinding event, particularly the last seven minutes when the lead changed hands 18 times. Karl Malone carried the Jazz on his massive shoulders down the stretch, only to wind up throwing away a pass with 18 seconds to go that set up Terry Porter's winning free throws. Clyde Drexler missed two free throws and threw up an air ball midway through the fourth period, only to steal Karl Malone's pass, setting up the winning points.
"It didn't seem like either team could stop the other team," said Portland's Danny Ainge. "Obviously we came out the winner, but it was a great game."
For the second time in a week, the Jazz put on a furious run, only to come up short. Last Thursday in Portland, they overcame a 23-point deficit in the fourth quarter, only to lose by two points. This time they trailed by 17 in the first half and by 16 with 30 seconds remaining in the third period. But after pulling within one with 7:21 to go in the game, the teams traded baskets for the next seven minutes, neither going up by more than a point. "It was an unbelievable fourth quarter," continued Adelman. "I couldn't believe it. I kept expecting them to miss."
Once the Jazz had roared back to tie the score - thanks to a 17-2 run at the end of the third and start of the fourth quarters - it became a contest of nerves as well as skill. Neither team would crack under the pressure, neither would miss on a big shot. Portland center Kevin Duckworth, who scored 30 points, got 10 of them in the final period.
While Portland's stretch run was keyed by Duckworth, several Jazz players took their turn. Jeff Malone made consecutive jumpers to put the Jazz ahead by one. Mike Brown made two in a row, followed by two each by the Mailman and Stockton. Stockton's second basket, a twisting left-handed shot that put Utah ahead 99-98 with 1:16 remaining, also drew a foul. But Stockton missed the free throw and Duckworth's two free throws gave Portland back the lead.
Inside the final minute, Karl Malone and Drexler each made shots, setting the stage for the final act. Taking the ball on the wing, Malone tried to pass inside to Thurl Bailey, but Drexler jumped inside to intercept. Porter was fouled with 13 seconds left, making both shots.
"I was going to shoot and I saw Thurl at the last minute," said Malone. "I thought he was open. Maybe I shouldn't have passed it. I can accept that. I did the best I could."
He continued, "You get into that zone where you think everything you do is going to work out. Maybe that's why I tried the pass."
After Porter's free throws the Jazz went down court, trailing by three, and Stockton put up an errant three-point shot. Bailey rebounded and got the ball to Jeff Malone, who passed out to the Mailman outside the three-point line. The ball skipped out of the basket at the buzzer.
"It looked good," said Malone. "Over the course of a season you get some like that and make them. It just didn't happen."
With Portland leading 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, the end of the Jazz season could come quickly. For the Blazers, the plan isn't just to get by the Jazz; it's to get by everyone. "This team has been motivated since training camp and won't be satisfied with anything less than a championship," said Ainge.
Meanwhile, despite the disappointment of losing, the Mailman had to acknowledge what Adelman said: It was a game for the ages. "You like to be involved in games like that, but you'd like to win it, too," he said. "It just didn't happen."