GO AHEAD AND ADD the name of the Cleveland Cavaliers to those NBA teams that have about as much affection these days for Salt Lake City as they do for, say, Beirut.
The Jazz rolled up an easy 96-83 win over the Cavs Monday night in the Salt Palace. The score reflected the Jazz's charity more than the closeness of the game. This one was out of reach by halftime, at which point the Cavs had made 11 of 41 field goals (26.8 percent) and scored a grand total of 27 points, the fewest points in a half by a Jazz opponent since the franchise came to be.The team with the best won-lost record in the league had a good idea how the Donner Party felt after it visited Utah; or the crickets; or Johnston's Army. By now, the Cavs are back home, wondering whether to blame the altitude (Salt Lake is approximately 4,000 feet higher than Cleveland), their lengthy road trip (last night's game was their fourth in five nights and fifth of a five-game road trip), jet lag (they played in Portland the night before), or the delirious Salt Palace fans (who filled all 12,444 seats and behaved like it was a rock-concert).
All of the above was working against the Cavaliers last night, as were the Jazz themselves, who ran their homecourt winning streak to eight games and their overall Salt Palace record to 26-5.
This win followed on the heels of last week's 37-point home win over Houston, and the 14-point win over onetime Salt Palace nemesis Golden State. Before that, there was that 26-point win over the Lakers, and the 26-pointer over Phoenix. The question any more isn't "how?" it's "how many?"
You might still be thinking, yeah, but if the Jazz are so tough at home, what about those five losses? What about Dallas coming to the Salt Palace twice this year and winning, and what about the Charlotte Hornets, of all teams, flying in and flying out with a win?
It's true. The Jazz have dropped five at home. But if they wanted to get defensive about it, each loss came under rather disruptive circumstances - when certain players had other things occupying their minds.
There was the opening-day loss to Seattle, which came just hours after Karl Malone signed his multi-trillion dollar contract. There was the first loss to Dallas, which came just hours after Frank Layden resigned as head coach. There was the loss to Charlotte, which came just hours after Malone was voted in as a starter on the Western Conference All-Star team. There was the loss to Atlanta, which came just hours after John Stockton and Mark Eaton were named as Western Conference All-Stars. And there was the second loss to Dallas, which came just hours after Stockton signed his multi-zillion dollar contract.
Toss out the alibi-games and the Jazz are perfect this year at home.
Or, as Thurl Bailey says, "When we're concentrated, we're awfully hard to stop."
When Bailey's contract extension was approved, it should be noted, the Jazz still won.
The Jazz certainly appeared concentrated for the heralded Cavaliers, who came into the game fresh (so to speak) from a road win over Portland the night before. The Jazz entered the game with an average home win of 17.6 points. By the end of the first quarter they were ahead by nearly that many, 28-11.
"What we like to do," said guard Bobby Hansen, "is bang people early, play good physical defense. They tend to remember that later on, when it's crunch time."
If there ever happens to be one.
To the Cavalier's credit, they played hard to the end, despite the inhospitable conditions.
"We're gearing for the playoffs, we can't get blown out of games," said starting forward Mike Sanders, implying that every team is a potential playoff foe.
But Sanders said if his wishes come true, the Cavs won't see Salt Lake City again this year.
"Of all the places in the league, this would be the scariest to come to (in the playoffs)," he said. "It's tough to come in here and win."
Jazz assistant coach Phil Johnson said part of the reason the Salt Palace is getting to look more and more like the House of Usher to visitors is because of the Jazz's penchant for defense, and the way the altitude works to the home team's advantage.
"There's always been a lot of talk about the altitude in Denver," said Johnson. "But not at Utah, and what's the difference, about 500 feet? We like other teams to know about that. This place can wear you down."
Officially, the Salt Palace is currently the NBA's sixth unfriendliest arena - behind those homecourt bastions at New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Detroit. But it is gaining more and more disgruntled visitors all the time. The Cavaliers, for instance. They were here one night and they'd seen enough; or, rather, one quarter. Utah might be a nice place to live, but unless one of the All-Stars has just renegotiated a contract, you wouldn't want to visit there.