The race will last another week. The Jazz had their chance to just about close out the Denver Nuggets Saturday night in McNichols Arena, only to fade in the fourth quarter. In his own way, Karl Malone offered just the right summary: "The thing about that game is," he said in the locker room afterward, "it was there to be had."
Not until Malone missed a tough, twisting jump shot in the last few seconds did the Jazz officially lose, after being down by nine points in the last 2:20. The Nuggets' 110-106 win brought them within 31/2 games of the division lead - the Jazz's magic number is five, with Denver coming to town Wednesday.This was almost a major Denver collapse. "In a matter of just 30 seconds, we blow our lead," observed Coach Doug Moe. Instead, the Nuggets open a five-game trip at Portland tonight with an outside shot at catching the Jazz - whose win over the Lakers looks even bigger now.
With two weeks left in the season, Malone says of the race, "I want to get it over with."
About 24 hours after Malone's baseline jumper beat the Lakers, the Jazz had a shot at overtime with the Nuggets. Their late rally turned serious when Darrell Griffith hit his first 3-pointer since March 15 and Fat Lever made just one free throw with 19 seconds left, leaving the Nuggets up by two.
The Jazz looked to Malone, who'd scored all but seven of his 34 points in the second half. The ball went from John Stockton to Thurl Bailey to Malone on the left side, in all kinds of traffic. The shot went off the back rim. Lever rebounded and was fouled with :04 showing and made both free throws for the final points.
"I thought it was a pretty decent shot, to tell you the truth," said Malone.
"Obviously, you want to get the ball to him and let him work," noted Stockton. "I wish we could have gotten it in to him lower, where it's easier for him to work."
Coach Jerry Sloan was questioning his own play selection, wishing he'd tried something like the pick-and-roll play that worked against the Lakers. "They did a good job of defending, I guess," he said. "We didn't get anything out of it. It didn't look very good."
Generally, the Jazz had little business staying in this game until the end. They started poorly, had to play the last 7:45 of the third quarter without the foul-troubled Malone and scored on only one of nine trips in a fourth-quarter stretch. "You can throw out that part," Stockton insisted after the comeback.
They did play hard from the middle of the first quarter on, in possibly the toughest week of the season - four games in five nights against good teams.
Stockton backed up Malone with 23 points and 14 assists, while Alex English had 26 points for the Nuggets.
The Jazz struggled early and Sloan replaced his new starters, Mike Brown and Bobby Hansen. "We looked like we were running in mud," said Sloan. "I tried to move 'em out and put other guys in."
Even after giving up 11 straight points and not having Malone score a basket until 3:50 remained in the half, the Jazz stayed close. "They have a history of that," Stockton said. "We've always been able to come back and get into it."
Malone did that in the third quarter, scoring 12 points in four minutes befoire collecting his fourth foul. "He was on fire then," Sloan said.
This was Malone's third straight game with foul trouble. "Nothing you can do," mused the Mailman. "Look at the fouls . . . when (referee Ronnie Nunn) comes back and says it was a bad call while I'm sitting down, what can you do?"
Nunn was having his usual running battle with Sloan, who asked him at one point, "Are you holding a grudge?" Uh, that was the wrong thing to say.
Still, the Jazz stayed in the game with decent relief work by Eric Leckner and Marc Iavaroni. The offense fell apart when the game was tied in the middle of the fourth quarter; Malone missed a shot, lost two turnovers and had an offensive foul, and Stockton made two bad passes. "We had a couple of miscommuncations," said Stockton.
"When we're in a dogfight, we end up taking too many bad shots," noted Sloan.
After Bill Hanzlik's jumper put Denver up 102-93 with 2:20 left, the Jazz and Malone made their move. Later, they were down by three and had the ball, but Mark Eaton's pass for Stockton was intercepted. "I felt I got grabbed," said Stockton. "All of a sudden, the brakes came on me. If you can get away with it, do it, I guess."
After Lever made one free throw, Griffith delivered his 3-pointer - breaking a run of 15 misses in three weeks. "It wasn't enough," Griffith said.
The amazing part is, it almost was enough.
JAZZ NOTES: Entering Saturday's games, Stockton led the NBA in assists (13.6) and steals (3.06) and was eighth in field-goal shooting (.545); Malone was second in scoring (28.8) and fifth in rebounding (10.8) and Eaton was second in blocked shots (3.9) and seventh in rebounding (10.3) . . . Griffith on losing his starting job: "No use making any comment on that." Griffith, asked if he was aware of his 3-pointer slump: "Not really." . . . Iavaroni had five rebounds in eight minutes, playing for the first time in three games . . . Another good offensive showing for Leckner, with eight points.