Just to show that not everything is out of whack in the Valley of the Sun, the Jazz came to town Wednesday. So maybe the impeached Evan Mecham can run for governor again, Arizona State can hire the wrong Michigan basketball coach and the temperature can hit 98 in early April, but at least nothing changes in Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Showing more fourth-quarter cool than the veteran Jazz, the Phoenix Suns took a 114-104 victory that just about guaranteed them the second-best record in the Western Conference and a homecourt advantage through two playoff rounds. The Suns have a two-game lead over the Jazz (45-28), who have lost 12 of the last 13 games in this building.Instead of their usual early exit, the Jazz stayed tough until the middle of the fourth quarter. "We came in here and let them know we can play against them," said Coach Jerry Sloan.
Maybe coming close was the worst part. The Jazz leave, knowing they had their chances but failed to deliver.
Amid all their troubles - the off-guard shooting crisis, Eric Leckner's rookie lapses and a rest disadvantage - they were down by only three after Thurl Bailey's rebound basket.
When Kevin Johnson made three free throws, Tom Chambers followed with a steal and dunk and John Stockton's bad pass led to a Johnson layup, the Suns suddenly had things in hand with a 10-point lead. Earlier in the quarter, Malone had given the ball right back after a steal with the Jazz down by three, and Jeff Hornacek drilled a jumper.
"I'm sure there are plays all of us would like to take over," said Malone, testily.
A demanding three-game trip continues for the Jazz Friday against the Lakers and Saturday against Denver. Their Midwest Division magic number is six and holding.
Just in case these teams meet as scheduled in the second playoff round, this was the warmup. The game came complete with a sellout crowd; Sloan pleading for illegal-defense calls and trading insults with fans behind the bench; and the grumbling about calls in the losing locker room.
"That's about as close as you're going to get," Stockton said of the playoff intensity.
Making 16 of 18 free throws, Johnson led the Suns with 32 points and Chambers scored 22 of his 30 in the second half. The Jazz's numbers were the usual - 29 for Malone, 28 for Bailey and 23 for Stockton, with 16 assists.
The Jazz's chief trouble lately is the continued struggling of Darrell Griffith and Bobby Hansen, as the wrong numbers keep adding up. Griffith's four-game shooting: 7 of 32. Hansen's: 9 of 33. Total: 16 of 65.
For the record, Jim Farmer still has a cast on his hand, Bart Kofoed is in Belgium and Scott Roth is in San Antonio.
"They've just got to work themselves through it," Sloan says bravely. "That's the only thing I know. They're not going ahead and sticking it; maybe they're a little tentative."
Griffith:""I'm probably not following through like I should . . . It happens that way - you have to forget about it." Hansen: "Those same shots will fall - the percentages will catch up; they always do." Hansen seems to be searching slightly less than Griffith, but that's not saying much. During the two-headed slump, the Jazz have lost tough, close games to Detroit and Phoenix.
After the latest, the upstart Suns almost sounded condescending. "They really made us work hard to get this win," said Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons.
The Suns were almost rusty, having not played since Friday, while the Jazz were coming off a hard fight with Dallas Tuesday and visiting the Coliseum, where they're now 4-31 lifetime.
Fitzsimmons knew all about the series history, coming in. "They've had a terrible time winning in the Coliseum," he had said.
The Jazz opened the game with other ideas, leading by 13 points before settling for a 30-26 first-quarter edge. Only Kevin Johnson's 12 points kept the Suns close, as the Jazz were off and running.
Things changed for a while in the second quarter as the Suns worked the offensive boards and Griffith started struggling again. In one sequence, he missed three shots - the last was blocked, leading to a Chambers dunk at the other end.
The Jazz survived the half with a 55-52 lead as Phoenix missed a last chance to go ahead and Eddie Johnson fouled Bailey on the rebound with no time left. Bailey made one free throw and Stockton added another after a technical foul on Johnson.
The Suns went ahead quickly by seven in the third quarter, but the Jazz worked their way back. They had taken a one-point lead when Malone missed inside and collected a loose-ball foul - his fourth - and a technical. The Suns went back out to an 82-77 lead entering the final quarter.
The Jazz were still in the picture, until the last five minutes when the Suns took on the appearance of experience _ not the Jazz. "They kept their poise," said Bailey. By losing, the Jazz probably earned themselves another chance in Phoenix in May.
JAZZ NOTES: Malone will appear tonight on the "Arsenio Hall Show." A few teammates will accompany him to the late-afternoon taping. Malone met the actor/host last summer when Hall was a celebrity coach in Magic Johnson's all-star game . . . Leckner had five fouls in eight minutes . . . Another "Did not play-coach's decision" for Marc Iavaroni, his second of the season and third in two years. *****
Here's why the Jazz's 114-104 loss at Phoenix Wednesday could be costly in the playoffs:
If the Jazz win the Midwest Division, they'll be the automatic No. 2 seed in the Western Conference; Phoenix almost certainly will be No. 3. Among the first-round matchups are No. 2 vs. No. 7 and No. 3 vs. No. 6. The winners meet in the second round - and the homecourt advantage in that round will be determined by season record, not seeding.
If the teams have the same record, Phoenix will likely have the edge by the fourth tiebreaking procedure - record against playoff teams in the conference. At the moment, Phoenix is 19-12, the Jazz 14-12. The teams tied the season series 2-2.