Six and a half months and 90 games after the start of the season, the Utah Jazz are on the verge of their summer vacation. Trailing three games to one in the best-of-seven playoff series with Portland, they find themselves one game away from Sea World and the Grand Canyon. And woeful thoughts of what they could have done.
"If the guys haven't already packed their bags and got their trucks ready to go, it isn't hopeless," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan.The Jazz and Blazers tip off Tuesday at 8 p.m. (MDT) at Memorial Coliseum, where Portland has beaten the Jazz in 32 of the last 42 games (including playoffs) and six straight.
"We're realistic - our backs are to the wall," said guard Jeff Malone.
Added guard Delaney Rudd, "It's not over yet."
Having played three games in the past four days, the Jazz flew to Portland Monday morning and held a team meeting in lieu of practice. Both teams have suggested the heavy preparation stage is over, since they have met four times in post-season and four times in regular season.
"We can't really change anything now," said Sloan. "They know us and we know them. If there's any changes, it would be in us stopping them from doing the things they do best."
The playoffs have been a series of highs and lows for the Jazz. They beat Phoenix 3-1 in the first round, but Round Two has been an exercise in frustration. Two of their three defeats have been decided in the final three seconds when desperation shots went awry. But Sloan says close doesn't count in the NBA. "Nothing can be any more discouraging . . . all the 'ifs'," said Sloan. "How would you feel if you went out and didn't give your best effort and this team (Portland) goes ahead and wins the championship?" he said.
Although the Jazz are trailing convincingly in the series, it isn't due to a lack of effort. Karl Malone is averaging 30.1 points and 14.0 rebounds a game, both second-best in the NBA in the playoffs. Teammate John Stockton's 13.8 assist average is best in the league. Meanwhile, Jeff Malone is averaging almost 21 points a game.
"I just hope our guys come to play and have the energy to play," said Sloan. "I expect that. They'll be disappointed if they don't."
Although heavy favorites, the Blazers have troubles of their own. Starting guard Clyde Drexler is bothered by a painful "turf toe" condition, though he played on Sunday. Whether he plays on Tuesday has been left up to him.
For all the dire predictions, the Jazz have adopted a new philosophy: Don't worry, be happy. Having dug themselves a reasonably big hole, they now say they are taking a nothing-to-lose approach. "Today we're more loose than ever," said Jeff Malone. "That's not a bad way to feel. There's not a whole lot of pressure on us. We've just got to play focused and stay relaxed."
Sloan wouldn't predict how his team will play on Tuesday, but said he's seen teams give up when faced with steep odds. "I've been on teams where the guys had already made their plans before ever playing the game," he said. "It's not fun to lose, but we beat them once and two others were right there to win. Who's to say what happens if we win tomorrow."
PREGAME NOTES: Sloan's playoff record is 6-9 with the Jazz, 8-13 overall . . . Darrell Griffith did not play over the weekend. He saw two minutes' action last Tuesday and played less than a minute on Thursday . . . Thurl Bailey is the only Jazz player to have seen action in all 57 playoff games in franchise history, averaging 15.4 points in that time.