The latest Jazz win in the countdown to a Midwest Division championship was hardly a classic, at least according to their most influential critic. They never could quite knock out the Denver Nuggets Wednesday night in the Salt Palace. The biggest play of the game was Fat Lever's kicking the basketball. Afterward, Coach Jerry Sloan was upset with - what else? - the Jazz defense.
"Sometimes," noted guard Darrell Griffith, "you can't be satisfied with a win."In their best season ever, the Jazz are suddenly choosy. Memorable or not, the 107-102 victory was their 47th of the year, tying the franchise high. They also lowered the Midwest magic number to two and could clinch the title Friday by defeating Houston - if Denver loses at Sacramento Thursday night.
The race almost took a new twist in the last 35 seconds, after Danny Schayes made his third 3-pointer of the season to cut the Jazz lead to two. The shot clock was down to nine seconds when John Stockton was passing on the sideline and Lever kicked the ball - not only did the Jazz get the ball out of bounds on the violation, they got a fresh shot clock, in this case all 19 seconds left in the game.
"It was just a reaction," Lever said later. "You try to play aggressive defense and sometimes it works against you."
That changed all strategy at the end. The Nuggets immediately fouled Thurl Bailey, who made one of two free throws to leave them some hope. Forced to look for a tying 3-pointer, the Nuggets went right back to Schayes, who faked Mark Eaton by stepping inside the 3-point circle and then back. His shot bounced off the rim; Bailey rebounded, was fouled and made both shots for the final spread.
Malone's 40 points and 13 rebounds and Stockton's 24 points and 19 assists led the Jazz, while Walter Davis had 29 points for Denver and Lever added 26 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists, just missing his ninth triple double of the season.
In one game, Denver went from a Midwest contender to a team that could fall as low as seventh in the Western Conference - and meet the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. "I still believe in our team . . . We may give someone a hard time, who knows?" said Coach Doug Moe.
The Nuggets did that and more in the fourth quarter, after being down 77-70, even while shooting just 42 percent for the game. With Lever and Davis heating up, they scored on 14 of 16 trips in the middle of the quarter, with the Jazz answering just enough to stay ahead but not saving themselves from the wrath of Sloan.
"You can't afford to get in a situation where you try to exchange baskets with them," said Sloan, who blamed his forwards for not helping the guards to fight through screens. "We had too many breakdowns defensively. We're laying back in there, watching 'em take the jump shot, hoping they'll miss."
Sloan made his message clear mostly on the bench during the game, but also in the locker room afterward, resulting in a fairly subdued scene.
"I think he's doing the right thing . . . by not letting us slide," said one player.
Sloan saw this coming. After playing well in three tough road games, including a four-point loss to Denver last Saturday, they had three days off. Sloan, caught up in pre-playoffs paranoia, was also concerned about the tone of Monday's Chamber of Commerce awards dinner. "Everybody had us winning it," he said. "We haven't done anything yet."
Check with him this weekend.
The Jazz did start well Wednesday, leading by 14 in the first quarter with Malone scoring 14 in the opening six minutes. Adding his 27 in 15 minutes of the second half Saturday, he'd scored 41 in his last 21 minutes against the Nuggets.
The Nuggets worked their way back, staying close the rest of the way with an effort that encouraged Moe, already gearing himself up - just in case, for a Jazz-Nuggets playoff series. "Which," he said, "will be interesting."
If this was a preview, file away these little exchanges for later this month: Wayne Cooper-Stockton, Michael Adams-Jim Les, Davis-Marc Iavaroni - plus veteran David Greenwood's wrestling with Malone.
"A lot of banging, shoving, falling down - that's the way it's going to be," said Bailey.
"No one's going to blow anybody out during the playoffs; I don't care who they are," said Malone.
At the moment, the Nuggets are one game behind fourth-place Golden State, but only one-half game ahead of Houston and Seattle. Four of their last six games are on the road. "We're starting to play better," said Moe, whose team is 8-29 on the road. "Now, we've got to come up with some wins."
The Jazz probably need only one more win anytime in the last six games, but they could still stand to straighten out their off-guard picture before the playoffs. Griffith and Bobby Hansen showed more signs of life, combining for 19 points, although Davis and Lever hurt them and Sloan said, "They're still struggling a little bit, from what I've seen' em do."
The latest angle is Jim Farmer, who returned after missing 11 games with a broken hand and played the last three minutes of the first half, scoring four points and driving aggressively. "He wasn't shy at all," noted Sloan.
"I decided if I'm going to play, I'm going to play like nothing's wrong," Farmer said.
JAZZ NOTES: Stockton hit a key 3-pointer in the fourth quarter. He also blocked a shot. For the season, he has almost as many blocks (13) as 3-pointers (15) . . . Malone has seven career 40-point games . . . Having resurfaced in the rotation recently, Eric Leckner played only four minutes.