Is this really happening? Here are the Utah Jazz, the team that struggled like crazy in the middle of the season and was producing more good stories off the court, is doing a number on the Los Angeles Lakers.
The latest was a 96-89 victory over the defending NBA champions in the Salt Palace Friday night, giving the Jazz a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 is Sunday afternoon and, while the Lakers finally woke up in the fourth quarter, they're in just a little trouble in the Western Conference semifinals."Not in our wildest dreams did we think we'd be down 2-1," said Magic Johnson.
"We either have to change our attitude, or this will be a very short series," said Coach Pat Riley.
Jazz Coach Frank Layden, whose chief fear seems to be saying anything that will end up on the champs' bulletin board, said, "We accept this victory humbly."
What choice did he have? "Sunday - and we keep saying this over and over - is the biggest game of the season," said Karl Malone.
Scoring all of four points in more than eight minutes, the Jazz showed signs of giving up a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter, but the Lakers went into a mysterious slump to match the Jazz's down the stretch.
They'd used a 10-2 run to come within five points before the Jazz's John Stockton made a huge play after the Lakers were down by only five, rebounding a Johnson miss, driving and dishing to Malone for a layup. But James Worthy responded with a three-point play with 2:53 left.
Incredibly, that was the last basket of the game.
The Lakers had three chances to score when they were down by four - and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was involved every time. He missed a hook shot with the shot clock running down, was called for an offensive foul while posting up without the ball and missed another hook. The only Laker score came on a Worthy free throw with 25 seconds left, while the Jazz strung together four free throws of their own to secure things.
Curiosities? Consider these: The 41-year-old Abdul-Jabbar made 3 of 14 shots for six points, worse than his Game 2 outing. Worthy, benched by first-half foul trouble, took his first shot of the game late in the third quarter and finished with seven points - the second single-figure game of his playoff career, covering 78 games. Magic Johnson had a quiet 16 points and only six assists.
"Those guys are the heart of our team," said Riley. "If they can't get baskets off our sets, they have to get them other ways."
Byron Scott almost saved the Lakers with 29 points, but the Jazz answered with Malone's 29 points and 13 rebounds, Stockton's 22 points and 12 assists and Thurl Bailey's 21 points. And what about Mark Eaton, suddenly the people's choice in the Palace? Try 10 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks - and credit him largely for the Lakers' 42-percent shooting.
What's wrong with the Lakers?
"We're the problem," insisted Bailey. "We're playing well. We're executing well and getting people in foul trouble."
The game was advertised as the biggest in Salt Palace history, and the atmosphere was worthy of that billing. So was the game.
The Jazz led through the first quarter as they would through the whole game, although Malone missed a layup that would have given them a 10-3 lead and probably force a Laker timeout and build up the crowd. But there was plenty of opportunity for that. The Jazz kept coming and ended up with a 31-23 quarter lead. Marc Iavaroni collected three fouls in the opening 1:31, but Worthy also went to the bench with three fouls late in the quarter.
Layden split up his guard rotation, spelling Stockton with Eddie Hughes while Bobby Hansen was still in the game. Before Bart Kofoed came in for Hansen, Stockton returned from his short rest.
The Jazz made a move early in the second quarter when Stockton hit a jumper and drove for a layup and a 41-29 lead. The Lakers recovered for the moment with Thompson's tip and Abdul-Jabbar's hook, but Malone drove on Kareem for a three-point play, drawing the Laker captain's thrid foul. Curiously, Riley's first subsitution at that point was Cooper for Johnson; Abdul-Jabbar came out later and Johnson spent the last five minutes of the half on the bench.
After the Lakers cut the lead to 10, the Jazz answered with Hansen's two layups with two Malone free throws in between to go up by 16 before Tony Campbell's jumper brought the Lakers within 56-42 at the half.
The situation was very similar to that of Tuesday's Game 2, when the Lakers also shot poorly in the first half - 38 percent in this case - and trailed by 11.
Just as they did then, the Lakers worked their way back into the game in the late going of the third quarter. The Jazz built their lead to 16 twice, but the Lakers seemed to wake up. Stockton's steal from Johnson for a layup halted one threat, but the Lakers came within nine in the last 39 seconds on a Scott three-pointer and a Mike Smrek free throw.
The Lakers could have held the ball for the last shot of the quarter, but Thompson missed in the lane and Smrek's loose-ball foul gave the Jazz a chance with four seconds left. And Stockton delivered, knocking in an off-balance 30-footer for three points and a 81-69 lead at the break.
Stockton scored on a drive to open the the fourth period and the margin was 14. The rest was a hanging-on operation. Malone's drive for a three-point play kept the lead at 13 with 8:38 left, but Scott scored three straight baskets and the Jazz proceeded to go six trips without scoring against the Laker trap. For the first time all game, the heat was on the Jazz.
Bailey stopped the bleeding with a baseline shot, but Johnson came right back with a drive past Eaton. The Lakers had things going their way, but the Jazz stayed in command.
"The thing we should be the most proud of is the way we kept our composure down the stretch," said Malone. "You know they're going to come back, no matter how far ahead you are."
Chances are, that includes 2-1 in a seven-game series. But the Jazz are having fun while this lasts.