Karl Malone led the Utah Jazz in just about everything but the singing of the National Anthem on Tuesday night. As a result, the Jazz earned an important 126-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Delta Center.
The Mailman was officially the team leader in the following: points (44), rebounds (14), assists (six), blocked shots (two), minutes played (38), personal fouls (five) and turnovers (five). Unofficially, he led the club in complaints to referees (approximately 27) and post-game interviews dodged (about two dozen).Overall, it was an impressive outing.
"It was just another day at the post office," said teammate Greg Foster of Malone's performance.
Malone helped the Jazz earn their 60th win of the season and a bit of revenge against the Timberwolves, who beat Utah on Saturday in Minnesota. The Mailman is currently on the best scoring streak of his career, netting an average of 42.3 points in his last four outings.
Apparently he didn't want to talk about his latest big game, however. Newspaper, television and radio reporters waited nearly an hour after the final buzzer to ask him a few questions. But Malone sneaked out of the locker room through a back door. He got past the press with more ease than he got through the Timberwolves' pressing defense - and that didn't seem to give him much problem, either.
While Malone was mum after the game, his teammates didn't mind talking about him.
"He's playing like the MVP," said Antoine Carr. "Hopefully everybody around the league and around the world notices that, because he deserves it again."
With the win, the Jazz remained one-half game ahead of the Sonics in the race for the best record in the conference. It also moved them into a tie with the Chicago Bulls for the best mark in the league with three games remaining. The Jazz, however, have the tiebreaker edge over the Bulls by virtue of their 2-0 series sweep. So if Utah can win its remaining games, it will earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs - including the NBA Finals.
The Jazz took it to the Tim-ber-wolves early. Utah opened up a quick 14-3 lead before the game was 31/2 minutes old. Utah led by as many as 25 points in the second quarter. After surrendering the final seven points of the first half, the Jazz still led 64-47 at the break.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan felt his team may have gotten a bit too full of themselves after opening up the big lead, however. "You start feeling good about yourself, and your arms aren't long enough to pat yourself on the back," is how he put it.
While the Jazz patted their backs, the Timberwolves kicked their rear ends in the third quarter. Minnesota scored 37 points and cut the lead to seven.
"We looked like we didn't care," said Sloan.
But Malone cared. He scored eight straight points and assisted on the other basket as the Jazz went on a 10-4 run to start the fourth quarter. Utah led by double digits the remainder of the way.
"To our credit," said Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, "we came back, but we just didn't have enough fuel in our tank."
Minnesota fell to 43-37 with the loss. The Timberwolves will enter the playoffs as the seventh or eighth seed from the West, meaning they will likely play either the Jazz or Sonics in the first round.
When asked which team he'd rather play, Timberwolves point guard Stephon Marbury didn't hesitate. "Utah, because we match up good against them."
Jazz forward Adam Keefe wouldn't disagree. "To be honest with you, they give us some problems," said Keefe. "We have a hard time. There are some difficult matchups. They're young, they're athletic, they're very aggressive, and we need to continue to improve to defend them better."
The Jazz gave up 100-plus points for the third consecutive game, which is a first this season.
"We have to get everybody on the same page defensively," said Sloan. "I don't think we're there yet."
While Malone had yet another huge night, Chris Morris had his best all-around game of the season. He scored 17 points with 11 rebounds and three assists in 22 minutes.
"I've started to be more focused and have a little bit more fun," said Morris, explaining his recent trend toward productivity.
Jeff Hornacek, who struggled against the Timberwolves on Saturday, added 20 points, while Bryon Russell scored 17 on 6-of-7 shooting from the field. Utah's trio of centers were non-factors, however. Foster, Greg Ostertag and Carr played a total of 34 minutes. They combined for three rebounds and two points. Carr, playing his first game after missing 13 due to a strained right hamstring, scored a bucket with one rebound and one block in 11 minutes.
The T'Wolves were led by Marbury's 25 points and 13 assists, but he was only 6-for-17 from the field. Kevin Garnett added 18 points and 10 boards.
The Jazz will play their final regular-season home game Thursday night against the struggling Sacramento Kings. Then they'll hit the road for tough battles Friday night in Phoenix and Sunday in the Forum against the Lakers.
Down the stretch
Team W L Pct GB
Utah* 60 19 .759 -
Chicago 60 19 .759 -
Seattle 60 20 .750 1/2
L.A. Lakers 59 21 .738 1 1/2
CHICAGO - HOME - April 18, New York. AWAY - April 15, at Detroit; April 17, at Philadelphia.
UTAH - HOME - April 16, Sacramento. AWAY - April 17, at Phoenix; April 19, at L.A. Lakers.
SEATTLE - HOME - April 17, San Antonio. AWAY - April 19, at Portland.
L.A. LAKERS - HOME - April 17, Dallas; April 19, Utah.
*-Jazz have tiebreaker edge over Bulls by virtue of having defeated them twice this season
If the NBA playoffs began today . . .
Eastern Conference (in bracketed order)
1. Chicago Bulls (60-19) vs. 8. New York Knicks (42-38)
4. Charlotte Hornets (49-30) vs. 5. Atlanta Hawks (48-31)
2. Miami Heat (55-24) vs. 7. New Jersey Nets (42-37)
3. Indiana Pacers (56-23) vs. 6. Cleveland Cavaliers (46-33)
Western Conference (in bracketed order)
1. UTAH JAZZ (60-19) vs 8. Houston Rockets (41-39)
4. Phoenix Suns (54-25) vs. 5. San Antonio Spurs (53-26)
2. Seattle Sonics (60-20) vs. 7. Minnesota T-Wolves (43-37)
3. Los Angeles Lakers (59-21) vs. 6. Portland Trail Blazers (45-34)