The way things are looking in the Salt Palace these days, Miami could be the only team to give the Jazz a threat before this homestand ends. Cleveland tried Monday night, coming to town with the supposedly impressive credential of the NBA's best record, but all the Cavaliers did was join the list of Jazz homecourt victims since the All-Star break.
While some games have offered at least a little intrigue, the Jazz have won eight straight at home by at least 14 points - including an easy 98-83 defeat of Cleveland.The daily standings report: Thanks to Houston's one-point loss to the Lakers in the Forum, the Jazz's Midwest Division lead is now 4 1/2 games. They're also one-half game ahead of Phoenix for the second-best record in the Western Conference; if you have to know, the Jazz (39-23) are five games behind the Lakers in the West and six back of Cleveland overall with 20 games left.
Before the five-game homestand ends Friday with Miami, Portland checks in Wednesday to challenge the Jazz's dominance, but the Trail Blazers will have an even tougher travel situation than the Cavs did - the game starts at 6:05 p.m. for television's sake, cutting out a good chunk of the Blazers' afternoon rest. Nobody's won in the Salt Palace on a travel day this season, and Cleveland offered little resistance.
"We were just tired," said Coach Lenny Wilkens. "We just didn't have any legs . . . we were flat-footed the whole game."
The Cavs were coming off a needed win in Portland Sunday night as they closed a five-game western trip and, by the end of the first quarter, they were looking for a ride to the airport. "We thought they'd be feeling pretty good, coming in here," noted the Jazz's Mark Eaton.
Instead, they acted like the Cadavers of the old days, missing their first nine shots and trailing 28-11 after the first quarter. Even though the Jazz struggled themselves, they managed to stay up by 47-27 at halftime - the Cavs made the Jazz record book, opponents' section, as the only team to score fewer than 30 points in a half in the Jazz's 15 seasons.
"One of those nights," shrugged All-Star guard Mark Price, who stayed on the bench for much of the second half and ended up 1 of 11 from the field against John Stockton. "I just didn't have it. I'm tired."
The Jazz were hardly sympathetic to the Cavs' road trouble. "I don't really buy that," said Karl Malone. "Everybody has to do it."
Malone, meanwhile, struggled to reach 25 points for the Jazz, while Stockton continued his strong play with 19 points, 14 assists and five steals. Other than Mike Brown's steal and dunk, Marc Iavaroni's three offensive rebounds and Bobby Hansen's three layups in 55 seconds in the third quarter, that was about all the offensive excitement for the Jazz.
And more than they needed, actually.
Afterward, Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan suggested, "I think they have a lot more talent than we do," but you'd never have known that by the way the Jazz were shutting them down.
Thanks to a strong finish, the Cavs shot 39 percent for the game; 17 of the Jazz's 62 opponents have shot in the 20s (Sacramento, twice) or 30s. That's Sloan for you.
"You have 12 guys out there, playing like he used to play," Malone said. "The way we play it, it's fun to play."
Guard Ron Harper led Cleveland (45-17) with 20 points, mostly on free throws. Larry Nance, who'd missed all eight shots he took against the Jazz in December, came back with a respectable 19 points.
"They were slipping into passing lanes, taking the ball, and we were just kind of standing there," said Wilkens.
The Cavs threatened only in the fourth quarter, and just enough to keep the Jazz regulars in the game most of the way. "Sometimes, games like this are the ones that slip away from you," noted Sloan, but that was not going to happen this time.
The second half was highlighted only by one of Sloan's occasional running battles with referees, in this case Blane Reichelt. Sloan earned a technical foul in the third quarter, trying to buy a few calls for Malone inside. "I think our players have to be protected in situations, as much as possible," Sloan explained.
Otherwise, this was business as usual for the Jazz, who have clinched their best record ever against the Eastern Conference. They're 14-9 with only a home date with Detroit remaining; 12-10 was the previous best, and this year's mark was actually not helped by the addition of Charlotte, as the Jazz split two games with the Hornets.
The Cavs - having lost to Golden State, the Clippers and the Jazz and beaten Sacramento and Portland on this trip - go home to resume the fight for the NBA's best overall record and a homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. At the moment, they're just half a game ahead of Detroit and one game up on the Lakers.