By the end of the Midwest Weekend, the Jazz were cruising again. Houston? Harmless. Denver? Finally cooling off. With four weeks left in the regular season, the Jazz's magic number for winning the division is 10 - and counting.
Brushing aside any idea of a late-March fade, the Jazz followed the comeback win at Houston with a 112-90 defeat of Denver in the Salt Palace Saturday night. With Karl Malone racking up all kinds of numbers and everybody pitching in on defense to make up for Mark Eaton's foul trouble, the Jazz pulled away by holding the NBA's highest-scoring team to 38 points in the second half.Denver's five-game winning streak was left in the wake, as the Nuggets fell six games behind the Jazz and also gave up second place to Houston, 51/2 games back. That's pretty much the way the standings looked when the Jazz left home. Four games and 5,976 air miles later, nobody's gained meaningful ground on them, and you know they're in good shape because Jerry Sloan is still saying, "We haven't done anything yet."
For the Jazz's conservative coach, that's like saying the race will end any day.
Now, where were we? Before reopening the division race with two road losses, the Jazz's real issue was the battle with Phoenix for the second-best record in the Western Conference. The latest check shows the same story: Suns by one game.
Working on a travel day after a tough game in Houston, Malone looked as fresh as ever. In a sequel to his barking at Manute Bol earlier this month, he exchanged words with 5-foot-10 Michael Adams, while also finding time for 37 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four steals. Not even being brought to his knees in the fourth quarter after crashing a shoulder into David Greenwood slowed the Mailman, who resumed his rounds after a 20-second timeout, although he did require training-room attention afterward.
"He ran the floor about as well as I've ever seen him," marveled Sloan.
Malone also discovered his outside shot, knocking in three jumpers to highlight a 25-7 close of the third quarter that sent the Nuggets reeling. The Nuggets made 3 of 18 shots in the quarter and hit 35 percent for the game. "They got more pumped up, the more we missed," said Denver Coach Doug Moe, ejected late in the game.
While holding the Nuggets under 100 points for only the fourth time this season, the Jazz had to manage without Eaton for all but 21 minutes. Denver's custom-made, passing-game offense is not exactly a standard test for the Jazz's ability to play without Eaton, but the others came through in this case.
"They did a great job," said Eaton.
"You have to step it up - sometimes, you take for granted when the big guy's in the game that he's going to cover for you," noted Bobby Hansen.
Settling for outside shots and even missing some damaging layups, the Nuggets finished with some telling shooting numbers - Alex English was 5 of 16, Fat Lever 5 of 15 and Adams 0 for 6. Collectively, they average 66 points a game.
Last March, the Nuggets were in the middle of a 10-game winning streak, as they surprisingly overtook Dallas for the division title. The same picture was taking shape this weekend until the Jazz (43-25) rallied late at Houston and came home to handle the Nuggets.
The Jazz's team-record 11th straight home win came after a crazy week on the road. They flew from Salt Lake City to San Antonio to Salt Lake City to Seattle to Salt Lake City to Houston _ and back to Salt Lake City to meet the Nuggets, who'd played in Dallas Friday. That's the Midwest Division for you.
While the Nuggets suddenly showed signs of life on the road by winning at Houston and Dallas, Sloan was worried about the Jazz, coming off an emotional win. "I thought we might let the air out of ourselves," he said later.
The back-to-back outing was complicated by foul trouble _ Eaton, Malone and Mike Brown all went to the bench in the first quarter, meaning calls for Marc Iavaroni and Eric Leckner, recently phased out of the rotation. They did enough to keep the Jazz up by two after one quarter, and were needed again when Eaton worked only 19 seconds of the second quarter before collecting another foul.
On his way to 15 points, Hansen helped the Jazz keep a 56-52 halftime lead. Malone had 22 points at the half and, considering the Nuggets were only down by four, Moe figured the Mailman's scoring had little impact on the game.
"It may look like a guy is scoring a lot of points and doing good, but no one else is involved," he said. "Malone's going to get a lot of points, because they go to him just about every time."
Darrell Griffith joined in the third-quarter run with a dunk via a Malone steal and John Stockton assist and a drive for a three-point play, and the Jazz were on their way. Houston and Denver are now down to one last chance, at best. They'll have to win in the Salt Palace when they visit in the second week of April to have any say in the race - if it's still a race, by then.
JAZZ NOTES: The Jazz are 29-5 at home, the Nuggets 8-26 on the road . . . The Jazz's run of convincing home wins is intact: 10 of the 11 wins are by 14 points or more . . . New starter Mike Brown had eight points and five rebounds; Leckner had six points and seven rebounds in 13 minutes, matching the most he's played in a month . . . Guard Jim Les has reached the magical 30-percent mark for the season. By making two of three shots _ even while missing his last try _ Les is hitting exactly .300 (33 of 110) from the field . . . The Jazz's brief homestand continues with Seattle Monday and Detroit Wednesday.