So the Jazz really are serious about winning every game. Twenty-four hours later, the new Midwest Division champs breezed into Memorial Coliseum and led all the way against the Portland Trail Blazers Saturday night.
With a 99-95 victory, the Jazz avoided being any part of another clinching this weekend. Even if Dallas loses to Houston today, the Blazers will have to wait to wrap up in the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.The Jazz also probably justified their non-celebration of Friday, when they stayed cool after defeating Houston to win the division. "That's why we play 'em one game at a time," said Coach Jerry Sloan, grinning mischievously.
Still, said Mark Eaton, "This was a tough game for us, from that standpoint. The Clipper games are really going to test us."
Speaking of the Clippers, among Saturday's more intriguing development was their win over the Lakers. Phoenix's blitzing of San Antonio lowered the Suns' magic number over the Jazz to one for the second-best record in the Western Conference - then again, if the Suns keep coming, the Jazz would play the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs.
In the Coliseum, meanwhile, Thurl Bailey and John Stockton made two free throws each in the last 17 seconds as the Jazz (49-29) held on. They can win their landmark 50th game either Monday in Los Angeles or Tuesday in Salt Lake City against the Clippers. Karl Malone scored 25 points, but the most meaningful points were 17 and 14 for guards Darrell Griffith. They combined to make 14 of 20 shots and the 31 points were the most the Jazz have had from the off-guards since March 10.
"They were upbeat," noted Sloan. "That's the best they've played together in some time."
To sweep the four-game season series, the Jazz needed some last-minute breaks. After Kevin Duckworth's jumper with 53 seconds left, the Jazz gained extra time on a kicked-ball violation. Bailey was fouled with 17 seconds left while taking a pass from Malone. Later, Stockton hit two more shots after Jerome Kersey's tip.
Guard Terry Porter scored 20 of his 24 in the second half for the Blazers and Duckworth added 22 as they shot 39 percent. "They are very tough defensively, which is a credit to Jerry Sloan," said Coach Rick Adelman, a former Sloan teammate. "They defend the way he did. They don't give you an inch."
This game offered the first clues of how Sloan will approach the last week of the regular season, with really nothing to play for the in the standings. He generally played everything straight, substituting more than usual in the first half but keeping Marc Iavaroni and Jose Ortiz on the bench all game. Stockton and Malone played 39 minutes each.
Before the game, Sloan was toying with different ideas. "I've never been in this situation before," he mused. "It's hard to say just exactly how you're going to approach it. I just have to see what happens in the ballgames. We want to win as many games as we can, but if and when I can, I should be trying to play those other guys. I don't want to get to the point where it looks like we're not trying to win the ballgame."
The regulars were guessing that Sloan would try to rest them more than usual;they had mixed reactions about that plan. "There are several schools of thought," noted Stockton, thinking of pre-playoffs. I certainly don't want to be in a lull when the playoffs come."
How important is a strong regular-season finish? Hard to tell. In 1987, the Jazz lost their last three games, but the won the first two games in their playoffs series with Golden State. Last April, they won the last five, but lost playoff Game 1 to Portland. Then again, they lost the Golden State series and won the Portland series.
Sloan is already planning to play the regulars less in the exhibition season next fall, but he probably keep their minutes fairly high this week. "That keeps your body up; I'm not saying they have to play 45-46 minutes a game," he noted.
Said Malone, "Oh, yeah - you could always use the rest, but the last three or four games, I've been feeling really good. You can't take off too much time, and be rusty going into the playoffs."
Anyway, as promised, Sloan went to the bench fairly early. The subs gave up the last eight points of the first quarter for a 22-22 tie, with Richard Anderson drilling two 3-pointers - the second an off-balance heave after his steal on the sideline with five seconds left.
After taking and almost losing a 10-point lead in the second quarter, the Jazz used Bailey's hook and Malone's two free throws for a 54-45 halftime edge. They had a break when Porter missed a 3-pointer and Sam Bowie was called for a loose-ball foul with six seconds left.
The Jazz lost almost all of a 14-point lead in the third quarter - mostly with the regulars in the game. Drexler's three-point play cut the lead to 72-71.
With Malone and Griffith scoring twice each, the Jazz went up by eight early in the quarter. The Blazers crept back, with Porter's second-chance 3-pointer cutting the lead to three. Later, the Jazz had a chance to lead by seven, but Stockton missed a jumper and Clyde Drexler delivered a long pass to Porter for a layup.
Still, the Blazers never took the lead.
JAZZ NOTES: Stockton's three steals left him one short of his franchise season record (251) . . . Malone took one of his worst tumbles in the first quarter, falling backwards over the scorer's table. He came up with only a scratch, but damaged a keyboard . . . The Blazers made 3 of 9 free throws in the first half . . . Saturday was one day after the one-year anniversary of the Salt Palace game when Stockton had 26 assists and Porter 19 in a Blazer win.