At last, the Jazz gave us some mystery in the Salt Palace Wednesday night. In a clever scheme to keep rookies Eric Leckner and Jose Ortiz out of the game, stop WTBS viewers from switching channels and create interest in a possible playoff rematch with Portland, the Jazz lost almostall of a 22-point second-half lead.
All of which was a welcome change, for entertainment's sake. Only when Portland came through with illegal-defense and shot-clock violations down the stretch and let John Stockton deliver the ball to Bobby Hansen for a clinching shot did the Jazz survive, 102-95.
Everybody went home happy and everything was cool in the home locker room, although Darrell Griffith confessed, "Even when we were up 20, we were playing terrible."
Of course, the Jazz have high standards these days. With Miami visiting to wind up the homestand Friday, the Jazz (40-23) have won six in a row overall and have tied the franchise record they set in December with nine straight home victories.
Even the Jazz needed a little variety after winning the last eight Salt Palace games by at least 14 points. "It was a good test for us," noted Thurl Bailey, after the Jazz scored 43 second-half points, "a game to see if we could hold our composure and play all the way out."
Said Mark Eaton, "We still managed to find some semblance of an offense in the fourth quarter."
Nothing overwhelming, mind you. When Jersome Kersey's four free throws cut the lead to four, the Jazz came back with Bailey's illegal-defense technical shot, but Karl Malone missed a three-pointer. At the other end, Hansen and Eaton teamed up to knock the ball away from Clyde Drexler; Kersey grabbed the ball and drove for a layup, but released the shot just after the 24-second clock ran out - a big break.
Hansen almost lost the ball out of bounds on the Jazz's next trip, but the Jazz kept possession and in-bounded with five seconds left on the shot clock. Stockton drove down the left side and passed under the basket to Hansen for a short jumper and a 96-89 lead with 1:10 left. End of scare, but not end of TV program. The last 22 seconds resembled a college game, with 12 free throws.
Coach Jerry Sloan liked the game's start and finish and was not especially disturbed about the rest, knowing his big-halftime-lead speech is becoming old by now. "I understand those other things that happened in between," he said. Still, Griffith noted, "Jerry's not going to let this slide, even though we won."
Malone's strong fourth quarter gave him 30 points, while Bailey added 24 and Eaton had 12 points and six blocks and tied his Utah-era team record with 25 rebounds - including 10 offensive boards.
"You don't expect him to hurt you offensively - he shouldn't," said Adelman.
"He should rebound - we exepct him to," said Sloan, a little flippant to the second wave of interviewers.
Eaton's 25th board came early in the fourth quarter. A few minutes later, the P.A. announcement of the record was made, and Eaton grimaced. "I hate that; then I started thinking about it," he said later.
Drexler had 11 rebounds and nine assists and scored 14 of his 31 for the Blazers in the third quarter, but his only fourth-quarter points were four free throws in the last 12 seconds.
The result was a 51/2-game lead in the Midwest Division for the Jazz and some consolation for the Trail Blazers, playing on a tough travel day. After Tuesday's home win over Golden State, they had to fly and rest quickly for a 6 p.m. start, because of TV. "It's really unfair to the team that has to do that," said Rick Adelman, the interim coach of the team that had to do that.
Right on schedule, the Blazers woke up at the usual starting time. It's just that they were down 59-41 at halftime and were still down by 22 late in the third quarter when point guard Terry Porter went out with his fourth foul on a tough call. Starting with Clint Wheeler's jumper, though, the Blazers scored 12 straight points and kept the heat on the Jazz the rest of the way.
"We just didn't have enough time, maybe energy, to do it," said Adelman, a former New Orleans Jazzman and Chicago teammate of Sloan's, who took over for Mike Schuler last month.
Schuler's troubles really started last May, after the Blazers went 53-29 but were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round for a second straight year - by the Jazz, in four games. A rematch is very possible. The Blazers are in a three-way fight with Denver and Dallas for the Nos. 7, 8 and 9 positions in the Western Conference - No. 7 will likely play the Jazz in the first round, No. 8 will play the Lakers and No. 9 will, imagine this, be in the lottery.
With Sam Bowie (13 points) continuing his comeback, the Blazers - with no pressure on them this time - could be dangerous. "They're going to be a tough team to reckon with, come playoff time," Sloan warned.
JAZZ NOTES: Making only 12 baskets in the second half, the Jazz shot 41 percent for the game; same for the Blazers. Stockton was an unusual 3 of 9 and the Griffith-Hansen-Jim Farmer off-guard group was a combined 6 of 18 . . . Quite a game for Portland All-Star center Kevin Duckworth: 31 minutes, 2 of 9, four points, three rebounds . . . Eaton's 46 minutes tied his season high.