Jerry Sloan used to get criticized by some all-knowing basketball fans - you know, the ones that call sports radio shows - for being too predictable in his substitution patterns.
It's true that Utah Jazz stars John Stockton and Karl Malone know when to expect their breaks.Stockton gets a rest with about five minutes to play in the first and third quarters, while Malone's has a chance to catch his breath early in the second and fourth periods.
But - especially in the past half dozen games or so - Sloan hasn't hesitated to mix and match his lineups.
Take, as an example, Sunday afternoon's 106-100 victory over the Houston Rockets in the Compaq Center. Sloan shuffled a core group of nine players - 10, if you count the four unproductive minutes Chris Morris played - until he found a few that worked well together.
He played point guards Stockton and Eisley together at times. Malone, the epitome of an NBA power forward, spent much of the afternoon at center. Bryon Russell, a small forward by trade, switched over to the power forward position for part of the game. The Jazz, on occasion, went small with three guards on the floor.
Houston had the height advantage all game with the likes of 7-footers Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin Willis playing alongside 6-10 Matt Bullard for much of the night, but the smaller Jazz lineups were effective.
"Coach is playing who he thinks he needs to," said Malone. "If he sees a need for a smaller lineup, he doesn't hesitate to go with it . . . We made them play us, rather than us trying to match-up to play them all the time."
The taller Rockets, it seems, had a rough time keeping up with the Jazz. Utah went to the foul line 20 more times than Houston - taking 39 free throws to 19 for the Rockets. The Jazz outscored their opponents 32-11 from the line.
The free-throw disparity was a bone of contention for the 28-29 Rockets, who have lost all three meetings this season against the Jazz, now 39-16.
"We never seemed to get to the free-throw line," said Clyde Drexler, who scored a game-high 25 points. "Utah had 20 more free throws than we did, which was frustrating."
Added Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, "They were getting the calls and we were not. Thirty-nine to 19 (free throws) is not right."
The Rockets, and especially point guard Matt Maloney, were right early in the game. Houston jumped out to a 13-6 lead on Maloney's second 3-pointer of the afternoon with 7:10 remaining in the opening quarter. Maloney's 15 first-half points enabled the Rockets to maintain their seven-point lead at the half, 53-46.
But the Jazz entered the locker room feeling relieved. The deficit could have been much worse, as the Jazz had only made 30.8 percent of their field goals to Houston's 52.5 percent. If it hadn't been for Russell's play off the bench, it would have been ugly. Russell was 3 for 3 from 3-point range and finished with 13 points in the second quarter.
"Bryon kept us alive in the first half," said Sloan.
The Jazz fell behind by 10 early in the third quarter before putting together the game's decisive run. The Jazz outscored the Rockets 20-4 over a five-minute span of the third quarter to take the lead. Adam Keefe led the way with 10 points in the period.
"We felt good to be only down by seven at the half," said Malone. "We made a run in the third quarter, and we never stopped."
The Rockets kept the game close in the final quarter and even took the lead with 2:35 to play, 98-97, to get the home crowd rocking. But Malone's 18-footer with 1:37 left gave the Jazz the lead for good. Antoine Carr made the defensive play of the night a few seconds later, blocking a layup attempt by Mario Elie that could have given the Rockets the lead once again.
"I guess he just forgot that the old man still has major ups," explained the Big Dawg of his key blocked shot.
A Russell turnaround six-footer on the baseline with 34 seconds left gave the Jazz a 102-98 advantage. Four straight free throws - two each from Stockton and Carr - iced the game.
"It was a good way to start the (five-game) road trip," said Russell, who finished with 16 points. "It's always best to start a trip with a win. It's a big confidence builder and hopefully this will set the tone for the rest of the trip."
Malone led the Jazz with 21 points and nine boards, while Stockton scored 17 points with 14 assists. Keefe, in only 17 minutes of action, scored 14 points with seven rebounds.