Jerry Sloan tried to instill a sense of urgency in his team on Sunday afternoon, but it was clear from the start that it just wasn't there. The game simply did not have the implications of the one a couple nights earlier in Phoenix.
And the Utah Jazz, for the most part, played like the game was of little consequence.As a result, the Jazz's regular season closed the way it started - with a loss on the road to the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal scored 33 points with 15 rebounds, as L.A. edged the Jazz, 102-98, in front of a sold-out Forum crowd and an NBC television audience.
The Jazz fell to 62-20 but still enter the playoffs with the homecourt advantage throughout, including the NBA Finals should they get that far. The Laker victory tied them with Seattle for the best record in the Pacific Division at 61-21, but they still remained as the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
The game didn't change a thing as far as the playoffs are concerned - but don't dare suggest to Sloan that it was meaningless.
"It didn't mean anything in the standings, that's true, but it meant something to me," said the Jazz coach. "A lot of people paid to watch this game. And I've never played a game in my life when I didn't think it was important to come and play. Anything less than that is very unfair."
Much to Sloan's chagrin, the Jazz appeared to only be going through the motions early in the game. Utah fell behind by as many as 11 points in the opening quarter.
"We're not going to win very many games the way we started off," said Sloan. "They just came out and made a statement early that they were going to knock us to the floor all night. They got the job done."
Sloan rested his starters more than he usually does in the second quarter, as he went with his bench exclusively. John Stockton only played six minutes in the first half, for instance.
But Utah's bench kept the team within striking distance. "Our second group, in a lot of ways, competed harder than our first group," said Sloan.
The Jazz starters returned for the third quarter and actually rallied to tie the game by the end of the period. An Antoine Carr hook shot with 9:42 remaining gave Utah its first lead since early in the opening quarter. Utah went with its front-line unit - including Karl Malone and Stockton - down the stretch, but Nick Van Exel and Kobe Bryant came up big in the final minutes to lead the Lakers to the victory.
Bryant, still just 19 years old, scored a dozen fourth quarter points - including a 3-point jumper with 1:01 to play and the shot-clock winding down. He had 25 points for the game. Van Exel added six of his 20 points in the final minute.
"We wanted to end the season on a positive note," said O'Neal, who finished second in the NBA in scoring behind Michael Jordan, just ahead of Malone. "We did what we were supposed to do today."
The Jazz tried not to make excuses but admitted it was tough to get too excited about Sunday's game since they knew their course for the playoffs was already set.
"Who knows what our emotional state would have been if we had to win this game?" said Jeff Hornacek. "Our intensity level probably would have been higher, but we can only guess at that."
Malone led the Jazz with 27 points and nine rebounds, while back-up point guard Howard Eisley added 18. Carr had his best game since returning from a hamstring injury last week with 13 points and five boards in only 17 minutes.
"I'm feeling good," said the Big Dawg. "Just in time for the play-offs."
The good news for Greg Foster was that he survived. The Lakers were ticked off at the Jazz center following their 106-91 loss at the Delta Center on March 28. Foster made a throat-slashing gesture at the Lakers bench late in that game after scoring on a dunk.
The Laker fans booed Foster lustily during player introductions. He was fouled flagrantly driving to the hoop early in the game by Rick Fox but calmly walked away and sank both free throws. There were no other incidents, as cooler heads prevailed on both teams.
Utah opens the playoffs against the Houston Rockets - a rematch of last season's Western Conference Finals - Thursday night in the Delta Center. Utah is the top seed, while the Rockets, one of the most disappointing teams in the league this year, is seeded eighth. Still, Sloan says if the Jazz play like they did on Sunday, it will be a short run this year.
"We were selfish," he said. "If you don't play basketball as a team, then good luck (in the playoffs). Have a nice summer."
"We went into the season with expectations to have the best record," said Malone. "We did that. Now we've just got to see what happens . . . . We've just got to get ready for Houston."
The Jazz coaches gave the players today off, but they will resume practice in preparation for the playoffs on Tuesday morning.