The Business As Usual Tour continued Monday night in the Sports Arena, where the Jazz treated an outing with the Los Angeles Clippers like the - latest - biggest game of the season.
Even with extra chances available this week, the Jazz went ahead and took care of win No. 50 - a 108-102 decision. While no fewer than eight NBA teams will likely win 50 games this season, there's something special about that number. "It's still quite an accomplishment for our organization," said Coach Jerry Sloan.Predictably, the Jazz say they want more, as they meet the Clippers again tonight in the Salt Palace. "We're not satisfied with just 50," Thurl Bailey said.
That's obvious. After clinching the Midwest Division championship last Friday, the Jazz have hardly backed off. Rest the regulars for the playoffs? Not Sloan. Karl Malone and John Stockton played 42 minutes each against the Clips, while the likes of Marc Iavaroni, Jim Les and Jose Ortiz - Jazz futures to be determined - appeared briefly, if at all.
Malone had 34 points and Stockton added 16 points, 16 assists and four steals - breaking his own Jazz season record with 245 steals. Bailey's 26 points and Eric Leckner's season-high 13 points and nine rebounds in 17 minutes helped the Jazz rally after a slow start. Rookie guard Gary Grant led the Clippers with 30 points in taking advantage of Stockton's roaming, but that was not enough.
"We really had no rhythm," said interim coach Don Casey, who suspended guard Reggie Williams after the game for twice refusing to enter the contest.
The Clippers also had to take on the Jazz's real team. "Those guys have wanted to win these games; I kind of get the same feeling," said Sloan, explaining his post-clinching approach. "I hate to lose the rhythm - I'm pretty concerned about that."
Said Stockton, "Guys like him . . . want to win every time you get the chance."
The one Jazzman with an NBA championship ring, ex-Philadelphia forward Iavaroni, remembers Billy Cunningham resting his starters in April, but says this is different because the 76ers had older players. "I like what Jerry's doing," he said straightfaced, after working only 16 seconds in more proof that he's out of the playing rotation. "He just doesn't want to get that losing feeling. I think everybody's really focused on every single game."
The Clippers were on an upswing themselves, after Saturday's solid win over the Lakers - who did have something to play for in the game. As for the Jazz, Sloan said, "I was really interested to see how we would play."
For a while, the answer was unsatisfying as the expected letdown seemed to be hitting the Jazz. They trailed by 10 early in the second quarter, but Leckner's 11 points helped carry them to a 51-45 halftime lead.
"He's come a long way," Sloan said of Leckner, his personal project since last August. "I've been pretty tough on Eric . . . he's trying harder on the (defensive) end of the floor - that was our biggest concern with him all along."
Leckner, raised in nearby Manhattan Beach, had delivered 10 points in a recent win over the Lakers in another hoemcoming. "Pleasant surroundings," he said.
"I'm not overly confident to where I think I'm invincible, but I feel I can play against the guys I'm playing against," Leckner added. (But) if Mark Eaton goes the whole game with two fouls, I don't get the opportunity."
The Jazz were coasting in the third quarter before the Clips suddenly tied them with eight straight points. Sloan was signaling for a timeout after a Grant jumper and play almost stopped, but Stockton kept going and passed to Leckner, who missed a dunk. Ken Norman quickly converted for two of his 26 points, before Sloan finally got his timeout.
Shaking off a sore ankle, Malone scored a three-point play and inside basket to build on the Jazz's 79-76 three-quarter lead. Later, Bobby Hansen hit a short jumper on his third shot of a possession and Malone followed in Hansen's missed drive for a 10-point lead.
Hansen and Griffith were quiet again, after teaming for 31 points at Portland Saturday. They managed only 13, while even Stockton shot poorly - he was 7 of 19, missing seven straight in the first half.
Malone and Bailey, trying to catch Golden State's Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond for the NBA's unofficial 1-2 scoring title, did most of the damage this time.
The 50th victory was especially rewarding for the Jazzmen who remembered the early years in Utah - including Griffith, Eaton, assistant coach Phil Johnson and former owner Sam Battistone, who drove from his Palm Springs home for the occasion.
"It is hard to believe," noted Eaton.
Long before joining the Jazz, Johnson had worked under Dick Motta in Chicago when Sloan was playing for the Bulls. "Those guys won 50 all the time - I didn't know it was that hard," he recalled, having learned otherwise.
"It's just exciting to see how far the franchise has come," noted Battistone.