The Utah Jazz ended the regular season Sunday afternoon just the way they began it: losing to the Lakers in Los Angeles and getting roughed up in the process. The long, tumultuous, grumpy season is finally finished, and now it's on to the playoffs. But first, one question about the Lakers:
Is that all the've got?The Lakers won, but they should be worried. They showed up at the Great Western Forum Sunday with motivation and revenge on their side and spoiling for a fight. The Jazz showed up yawning - and almost won anyway. Score it: 102-98.
If the Lakers plan to meet and beat the Jazz later in the playoffs when it matters, this game could not have been good news. The Lakers were supposed to crush the Jazz on Sunday. They were going to even the score because of that Greg Foster business and because the Jazz sent them arguing and crying from the playoffs last year. They were going to whip the Jazz because they were playing for a division title, on their home court. Everyone was saying they were going to make a statement.
And the Jazz? They were playing for . . . well, because the game was on the schedule and they had to. If it had been up to them, they would have voted to can-cel the whole affair due to lack of interest.
They had already clinched everything they could clinch, including the best record in the NBA and the coveted home-court advantage in the playoffs. They had already won the war, who cared about a little battle? They had just played 81 games, most of them in a bad mood. All they wanted to do was go home.
And they almost beat the Lakers - with their second string.
John Stockton sat most of the game. He was on the bench for 31 minutes, where he couldn't hurt the Lakers. He's good - but not that good.
Karl Malone seemed largely disinterested in the whole business. He played 33 minutes, but it wasn't until the second half that he decided he really wanted to get involved in matters. As long as he was in the neighborhood.
Despite saying the Jazz would give their best effort, Jerry Sloan turned the game over to his reserves - Howard Eisley, Shandon Anderson, Bryon Russell, Antoine Carr and Chris Morris. Utah's bench scored 48 points - almost half the team's points.
After sleep-walking through the first quarter, when they were outscored 28-19, the Jazz outscored the Lakers in the second and third quarters despite themselves and actually took the lead. Utah's starters didn't even bother to play in the second quarter. After three quarters the game was tied. In the end, the Lakers won by two baskets against Utah's jayvee team.
What are they going to do when the Jazz get serious?
The Jazz's hearts were never in it, and they almost beat the team that everybody has crowned the next dynasty; the team that is supposed to block their rematch with Chicago in the Finals. The Lakers had better worry. They had better fear a repeat of last year's second-round match, when the Jazz dismissed them from the playoffs 4-1.
As expected, the Lakers came out ready for a street fight. They were still steaming because Foster had given them the choke sign as he was running past their bench during the last meeting between these teams. O'Neal called Foster a bum. Del Harris said Foster was lucky to be in the NBA, yet alone taunting opponents.
Before the first quarter was finished, Adam Keefe took a shot to the forehead and had to go to the locker room for stitches. Rick Fox committed a flagrant foul on Foster as the latter soared to the basket for an attempted dunk. And the Laker bench was whistled for a technical foul. Just another day on the Jerry Springer set.
The Lakers acted like little boys vowing to get their rivals at recess. Never mind that the Jazz had largely overlooked O'Neal's infantile slap of Greg Ostertag before the start of the season opener. There's bad blood between these teams, and the officials knew it, which is why they called a tight game (seven fouls in the first 31/2 minutes).
The only statement the Lakers made Sunday was that even on a day when Kobe Bryant (25 points) and O'Neal (33 points, 15 boards) are going strong and everything would seem to favor them, they struggle against the Jazz. If Sunday's game was any indication, it will be a different story when the Jazz have something at stake. The Lakers hit the Jazz with their best shot on Sunday and couldn't knock them out.
Afterward, the Jazz flew home to prepare for Houston and their annual (eternal?) quest for a championship. The Lakers will hold a three-day mini-camp in Palm Desert to prepare for their playoff series against Portland. But somewhere down the playoff road, the Lakers and Jazz likely will meet again. The Jazz won't be yawning then.