After playing catchup nearly all season long, the Utah Jazz have finally made it to the top of the Western Conference standings.
Not only that, they are tied with Chicago in the loss column and hold the tiebreaker edge over the Bulls.The Jazz gained their 50th victory of the season Sunday, tying Seattle for the best record in the West, by outlasting the New York Knicks 124-119 in double overtime.
"Even though we're tied, the (Sonics) could look and say `Damn, we were way out in front of those guys," Karl Malone said. "But we're not satisfied with anything yet. We have a lot of work left to do.
"We're starting to get there, but there's no doubt in my mind our best games are yet to come," Malone said.
Malone had 30 points and 14 rebounds, Adam Keefe scored a season-high 25 points, John Stockton had 22 points and 14 assists and Jeff Hornacek scored 16.
John Starks scored 26 and Allan Houston had 25 for the Knicks, who blew several chances to come away with a crucial victory in their quest to make the playoffs.
New York blew an early 17-point lead and a seven-point lead late in regulation. Houston missed what could have been a winning free throw with 1.5 seconds remaining in the fourth, and Starks missed a shot at the buzzer in the first overtime.
"The bottom line is we played great and had a chance to beat them, but we blew our chances," Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "To have it in your control and let it get away is tough. The guys who missed feel as bad as anyone."
Hornacek had seven points and two key assists in the second overtime as Utah opened a seven-point lead and held on to win for the 13th time in 14 games and the 20th in 22.
The Jazz finished 4-1 on their second five-game road trip of the month. Earlier in March, they went 5-0 on an Eastern swing.
"On the last game of a trip, that's a pretty big deal to win a double overtime game against a team that had a lot of energy," Hornacek said.With 15 games remaining, the Jazz are on the same pace they were last season when they won a franchise record 64 games. They have a 2-1 lead over Seattle in the season series, with one more matchup remaining next Saturday.
In the race for the best record leaguewide, Utah owns the tiebreaker edge over Chicago, having swept the season series 2-0.
"We've been looking at catching them for four or five games," Shandon Anderson said. "When we lost the Charlotte game we thought that would put us in a bind, but then Seattle lost two straight and we knew winning this game here would bring us even."
Utah, the best shooting team in the league for the past three seasons, hit 57 percent of its shots. Keefe was 8-for-10, Stockton shot 8-for-13 and Malone was 11-of-20 from the field.
New York had a chance to win at the end of the first overtime, but Starks, after driving around his defender and going airborne near the foul line, came up short on a finger roll to leave the score tied at 106-all.
In the second overtime, Hornacek fed Stockton for a layup and then found Malone ahead of the field for a fast-break bucket that put the Jazz up 110-106. After Starks missed two free throws, Hornacek blew by him for another layup to gave Utah a six-point lead.
The Knicks got no closer than three the rest of the way.
"We were not upbeat going out for the second overtime," Van Gundy said.
Starks scored 15 in the first quarter and Houston had 12 in the second as the Knicks were opening a 45-28 lead.
Utah came right back with a 16-4 run late in the quarter to pull to 55-51 at halftime.
The game was tied 73-73 entering the fourth, and New York opened an eight-point lead over the first five minutes with a 15-7 spurt that made it 88-80.
But the Jazz then held the Knicks scoreless for more than three minutes late in the period and came back from a five-point deficit in the final 1:03. Russell scored on a backdoor layup with 12.4 seconds left to put the Jazz up 98-97. The Knicks then isolated Houston, who was fouled on a drive to the basket with 1.5 seconds left.
Houston missed the first free throw before making the second, and a long 3-point attempt by Stockton missed at the buzzer to send the game to overtime.
Notes: Both teams spent much of the afternoon screaming at the referees. After one alleged cheap shot by the Knicks, Utah coach Jerry Sloan told one official "I'd rather lose than have my guys have to put up with that." Late in the fourth quarter, referee Tommy Nunez gave Sloan an earful that drew cheers from Knicks fans sitting behind Utah's bench. ... Larry Johnson missed nine straight shots at one point and finished with only nine points in 40 minutes. ... Hornacek, second in the league in free throw accuracy, missed two of seven attempts. ... The Jazz improved to 3-0 in overtime games, the Knicks dropped to 1-3.