Just in time for the visit from those Bad Boys of the East, the Jazz turned tough on the Seattle SuperSonics Monday night. John Stockton was riled up, Karl Malone and the rest were taking the Sonics' best - and worst - shots and coming back for more, and the Jazz were serious about not being dominated by the West's closest thing to bullies.
"You don't want to get swept under the carpet," said Darrell Griffith, after the Jazz's 124-105 Salt Palace victory kept Seattle from sweeping them in the four-game season series. The Jazz can become the first NBA team to beat everybody else this season Wednesday when they play Detroit, the hottest team in basketball with 14 wins in the last 15 games.With a lot of help from Stockton, Malone's 35 points and 11 rebounds and Thurl Bailey's 24 points and 13 boards did most of Monday's damage for the Jazz, who pulled away with a strong start in the third quarter and sent Seattle Coach Bernie Bickerstaff rampaging through his bench. Dale Ellis: Benched with seven minutes left in the quarter. Michael Cage: See Ellis. Xavier McDaniel: Benched with 3:35 left in the quarter, he played only 19 minutes.
"We had some players that were completely out of focus in the starting unit," said Bickerstaff, who could also look to a game at Phoenix Tuesday night.
Ellis and McDaniel led the Sonics with 14 points each, but that was nothing, considering Ellis' 46-31-31 ransacking of the Jazz in the other three games. Curiously, the Sonics were much more effective in the fourth quarter with their Nos. 8-12 players challenging the Jazz regulars.
By then, the Jazz were coasting to a 12th-straight home win. They also pulled even with Phoenix for the second-best record in the Western Conference (44-25) and lead Houston by six games in the Midwest Division. Magic number: nine.
Stockton's numbers were nothing unusual for him: 25 points, 12 assists, five rebounds, four steals and three turnovers. He was clearly revved up about facing the Sonics, who sent four different point guards at him Monday and had played him rough and caused him trouble in the three defeats - the latest, in Seattle last Tuesday - was still fresh.
Stockton claimed no incentive, other than the season series with Seattle, his home-state team. "You never want to let a team come into your house . . . and kick your dog," he said, borrowing the end of the sentence from his backup and locker neighbor, Jim Les.
"He doesn't take a (bleep)-kicking too many times and not show up the next day," said Coach Jerry Sloan. "I knew he was going to be ready to play."
Stockton's emotional level surfaced at the end of the first half, when Nate McMillan rode him all the way up the court and Stockton shook free to throw in an off-balance 3-pointer. Stockton jumped up and down and animatedly pointed at McMillan in an uncharacteristic display. "That was a little `in-your-face,' I guess," smiled one surprised teammate.
Stockton downplayed his action; he might have been gesturing for a foul call that never came. "I was fired up," he admitted.
In the third quarter, after being clotheslined in the lane by Olden Polynice, Stockton jumped up and had to be restrained. Now that was making a statement. "Stockton was definitely focused, no question about that," said Mark Eaton. "When you see him getting ready to take on (7-foot) guys, you know he's in the game."
Nobody was backing down in this game, which served as a playoff preview for style, anyway - the chances of these teams meeting are unlikely at the moment. If they did play in April or May, would anyone be left standing? This is the West's version of Detroit vs. Atlanta, and Monday's edition resulted in this debate: Who was starting everything?
"They were pounding us, they were banging us, and we didn't retaliate," said Bickerstaff. "They were hitting people, hitting 'em fair and square, and we didn't respond, in terms of helping each other."
Malone: "They got physical; we got physical. They started it, and we finished it."
According to the officials, the Sonics initiated most of the stuff. The Jazz shot 43 free throws to Seattle's 15.
While the Sonics - except Ellis - were missing outside shots, the Jazz jumped on them early. With Eaton (13 rebounds) joining Malone and Bailey on the boards, the Jazz were off and running to discourage the Sonics' trapping defense.
The Sonics almost caught them in the second quarter after being down by 14 early, but Stockton's closing shot gave the Jazz a 61-51 lead. Quickly, the Jazz ran away with a 14-3 start of the third quarter, helped by Griffith's eight points.
"I could feel it coming; sooner or later we were going to bust out," Griffith said.