After spending the last four years out of the Midwest Division race, the Jazz finally brought you a genuine, meaningful Big Game. In March, no less. After weeks of watching the standings and quietly delighting in Houston's struggles, they met the Rockets face to face in the Salt Palace tonight.
The division race lost considerable glamour last week when the Jazz lost three of five games on the road and still gained two games on Houston. When the Jazz won at Atlanta while the Rockets were ending their seven-game losing streak against the Lakers Sunday, though, the chase was on again.After tonight, the Rockets are either two or four games back, so the pressure's on them in what promises to be one of several playoff-style battles between division contenders in the next six weeks. "It's how you do against each other that's going to be the big difference," says Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan.
About the only way the Jazz could fall out of the division lead is to lose at home to other contenders. They have only 10 road games left and face Houston and Denver twice each in the Salt Palace.
"I'd pick us to win it," said forward Thurl Bailey. "I just think we're in really good position, with the schedule in our favor. It seems simple - all you've got to do is go out and win."
The division winner will have at least the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, meaning a homecourt advantage against the No. 7 team. Because all the Midwest teams trail the Lakers, Phoenix and Seattle in the overall conference standings at the moment, though, they'd only be assured of the homecourt for the first round.
That's why the Jazz and Rockets can't just worry about each other.
Actually, both teams are mostly worried about themselves. "It's great to realize we can still win . . . we're not there yet, though," Houston Coach Don Chaney said Sunday. "We're going to have to upgrade our game in every way."
Said the Jazz's John Stockton, involved in his first division race, "The bottom line for me is we have to keep winning."
Bart Kofoed and the Jazz are close to a contract settlement. After the Jazz waived him and terminated his guaranteed contract Jan. 4, Kofoed filed a grievance through the NBA Players Association, seeking the remaining $80,000 of his season salary.
Kofoed's agent, Ron Grinker, says a settlement should be finalized later this week, avoiding arbitration. Kofoed is expected to receive about half of his remaining salary; Grinker, who said he would consider other action if necessary, sounds satisfied with the deal. "If things go the way I'm inclined to think they are, there won't be a problem," he said Tuesday. "I think we'd all like to have it behind us."