Just because the schedule said so, the Jazz and Golden State played Game 82 of the season Saturday night in the Salt Palace. Frank Layden's jersey went up in the rafters, rookie Eric Leckner scored a career-high 21 points and the Jazz won a game that hardly resembled anything we'll see when they play the Warriors in the NBA playoffs this week.
"This was like an exhibition game," Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan said after a 111-95 victory."You could tell it wasn't a playoff game, that's for sure," said the Jazz's Bobby Hansen.
"We had to play this game to complete the 82-game schedule; luckily, no one got hurt," observed Golden State forward Rod Higgins.
The Jazz finished the year with a 51-31 record, while the Warriors (43-39) improved by 23 games this season - even while losing their last six.
The most important part of the whole thing was the postgame playoff preview offered by the coaches. "We know we've got our hands full," Sloan said earnestly, but that was mild compared with the lobbying Golden State's Don Nelson was doing on the other side of the building.
Or does everybody refer to the Lakers, Phoenix and the Jazz as the Big Three?
"The Lakers, Phoenix and the Jazz are head and shoulders above the rest of us," Nelson said, clearly enjoying the underdog role already. "It would be a near-miracle for any team to jump up there and upset any of them. It's a clear mismatch."
Just in case you were wondering, Nelson did go on to say, "We will definitely show up; don't get me wrong."
With this playoff matchup already set in concrete before the Warriors came to town, nobody had much to play for in the season wrapup. Nelson backed off in the last two games, after the Warriors missed their chance to finish fourth or fifth in the West, and the Jazz held Karl Malone out of the last two games with asprained ankle.
A mutual decision, between Malone and the Jazz medical staff? "Hell, no," Malone said before the game. "It's been their decision. I haven't had anything to say about it."
Said Jazz trainer Don Sparks, "He wanted to play, but I just didn't feel like the gamble was worth it." Malone will return to practice Monday, after the team - but not the film-watching coaching staff - takes today off.
Thurl Bailey took up Malone's scoring duties with 24 points, including 12 in the third quarter when the Jazz took control once and for all. Leading by 49-43 at halftime, they were still toying with the Warriors before Bailey led an 11-2 run that took care of things.
Leckner played 29 minutes and also tied his career high with nine rebounds and Darrell Griffith added 15 points. After making only one 3-pointer from March 15 until late in the fourth quarter at Dallas Friday night, Griffith hit two 3s against the Warriors. Mike brown tied his season high with 41 minutes and made a run at an unusual kind of triple double - 12 points, 11 rebounds and seven turnovers.
The real excitement was guard Jim Les' quest to shoot at least .300 from the field for the season. He did so - barely - by making a layup after missing two shots.
John Stockton, meanwhile, had 10 points, 10 assists and six steals in a season-low 24 minutes. Stockton wrapped up the NBA assists and steals titles, while ending up with the third-highest season assists total in NBA history - 10 short of his own record.
Terry Teagle went wild in scoring 19 of his 27 in the fourth quarter, while Steve Alford added a career-high 17.
"These last two games, we were playing for different reasons," allowed Nelson. "To give our bench confidence and rest our starters. (Sloan) did the same thing."
The Jazz did have some motivation, thanks to the Layden halftime ceremony. Remembering that they'd lost the game on the night that Layden left coaching in December, Hansen said, "We wanted to win this one for Frank."
The Jazz also needed a win to finish with the best homecourt record (34-7) in franchise history.
So the season that started with an Opening Night loss to Seattle and just kept going finally ended Saturday. In between, the Jazz changed coaches, signed their Big Three players to new contracts, had Malone surface as the All-Star Game MVP, lost Hansen for 36 games with various injuries, won their first Midwest Division title in five years and reached 50 victories for the first time in franchise history.
Now, for the real thing.
"It's going to be a completely different game on Thursday," said Hansen.
That's a fairly safe guess.
JAZZ NOTES: All 11 players besides Malone worked at least eight minutes and everybody scored . . . Mark Eaton had 13 rebounds in only 26 minutes . . . Chris Mullin had 14 points in 17 minutes for the Warriors.
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With 10 assists Saturday against Golden State, the Jazz's John Stockton now owns the highest and third-highest season totals in NBA history. The all-time season leaders:
Assists Player Team Year
1128 John Stockton Utah 1988
1123 Isiah Thomas Detroit 1985
1118 John Stockton Utah 1989
1099 Kevin Porter Detroit 1979
991 Kevin Johnson Phoenix 1989