On just another night in the Salt Palace, the Jazz hammered the Houston Rockets 122-96 and claimed the Midwest Division championship Friday. Proof of the strong public reaction was the quick sale after the game of all 240 T-shirts printed up just for the occasion. Inside the Jazz locker room: a different story.
"We're very excited," said Coach Jerry Sloan, sounding like he was reading from cue cards. Owner Larry Miller was distressed about finishing behindPhoenix in the Western Conference. Karl Malone's feelings? "No different."You'd have thought this was Boston Garden or something, where the Celtics hang only world championship banners. Reportedly, the Jazz have no plans to take down their 1983-84 Midwest Division flag.
Sloan even said of the latest achievement, "Obviously, right now, that's behind us."
So the Jazz go to Portland tonight to work on the next goal, winning 50 games. They have a franchise-high 48 wins with five games left.
No. 48 was one of the easiest of all. With Malone scoring 35 points and John Stockton and Thurl Bailey adding 18 each, the Jazz shot 61 percent from the field and coasted past the Rockets and won the season series (4-2) after splitting for the last five years. By losing, the Rockets - and you've heard this before - became the latest likely Jazz opponent in the first round of the playoffs.
Houston is now seventh in the West, trailing Denver by one game. The Rockets have an easier schedule ahead, but Denver owns the tiebreaker over them.
So the Rockets could be coming back to a building where they've lost by 37 and 26 on the last two visits. This time, forward Otis Thorpe managed 29 points and 14 rebounds, but the big news was Akeem Olajuwon's nine points on 3-of-16 shooting - only the sixth time in 381 career games that he's failed to reach double figures. Olajuwon also had 12 rebounds, six fouls, four turnovers and two shots of frustration at Mark Eaton, not counting the time Malone held him back from what was looking like serious business.
"When he starts having bad nights, he has a tendency to do that," observed Eaton, wearing a cut under his right eye. "I think it just gets frustrating."
The Rockets generally had no shot in this one, coming off a tough home loss to Phoenix Thursday. "That took a lot out of us," Coach Don Chaney said.
Malone's 14 first-quarter points gave him 81 for his last seven quarters and the Jazz were on their way. Stockton tied the team record he already shared with five steals in the second quarter as the Jazz took a 61-48 lead, and this game was over when Bobby Hansen scored the opening six points of the third period.
The Jazz finished with 31-30-30-31 quarter scoring, with rookie Eric Leckner working against 7-foot-5 Chuck Nevitt and scoring most of his 12 points, tying his season high, late in the game. All that was left was the, uh, celebration. For the record, Malone did raise his first when he left the court and Sloan did offer a word of congratulations to the players, but that was about all for now. If ever. "Definitely, a sense of achievement," was Hansen's comment, one of the strongest.
One observer, rookie guard Jim Les, was not surprised by the token observance of the championship. "You go the way your leader takes you," he said. "Jerry has really downplayed it. He wants us to set our goals higher. We're taking the attitude Jerry's taking - we have other things we want to do. Teams that win divisions and don't do well in the playoffs are considered to have bad years."
That's why Miller is worried about the Jazz's not catching Phoenix - and the Suns' magic number for that race is two. If the Jazz lose tonight and Phoenix handles San Antonio at home, the Jazz can cross another goal off their list. "It's satisfying," Miller said of the division title, "but it's dampened, considering that we've got Phoenix ahead of us . . . After the first round, the divisionchampionship doesn't help us."
That's true. All the Jazz really gain is the chance to play the No. 7 team instead of No. 6 in the first round; even the NBA playoff money is distributed according to the overall standings.
Just the same, virutally every newspaper in the country prints the standings by division, and the league does identify the four winners. After not really contending for four seasons, the Jazz were in this Midwest race all the way. Denver led briefly in November and December and so did Dallas, which was 17-11 before losing Roy Tarpley to drug rehabilitation and proceeded to go 17-32.
The Jazz and Houston were tied at the halfway point (25-16) and the Rockets led by one game at the All-Star break before the Jazz made their move during a six-game homestand. About that time, the Rockets lost forward Buck Johnson for 16 games with an injury.
"We were on a roll for a while," noted Chaney. "From that point on, we just didn't have that same crispness. We weren't sharp. When you have those kinds of changes, you're up and down."
The Jazz had a few ups and downs themselves, but had only one losing streak longer than two games - four, on the road in December. And Sloan wants to finish strong. "Basketball's such a fragile game," he noted. "Once you lose that concentration, you might not be able to get it back . . . My goal for these players and this organization is to win as many games as we can."
And from the sound of things in the locker room, nobody was willing to settle for 48.
JAZZ NOTES: Malone's last three scoring games: 34, 40, 35 . . . Stockton had 11 assists, leaving him at 1,048 and needing 80 in the last five games to tie his NBA season record . . . Darrell Griffith's showed signs of breaking his slump, although mostof his 14 points came on drives.
Spreading it around
NBA Midwest Division champions of the 1980s:
1989 - Jazz
1988 - Denver
1987 - Dallas
1986 - Houston
1985 - Denver
1984 - Jazz
1983 - San Antonio
1982 - San Antonio
1981 - San Antonio
1980 - Milwaukee