Karl Malone performed Sunday night in the Alamodome like he did throughout the regular season. Greg Ostertag didn't.
The result was good news for the Utah Jazz on both counts.The Jazz downed the San Antonio Spurs, 82-73, to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 Western Conference semifinal series. Utah will now have a chance to end the Spurs' season and advance to the conference finals for the fifth time in seven years with a win at home on Tuesday night.
Malone, who by his own admission hasn't - or at least hadn't - been playing up to par during the postseason, had a breakout game against San Antonio. He ripped the Spurs for 34 points, primarily from the outside and without shooting a single free throw.
"I can use two words to describe the game: Karl Malone," said Spurs point guard Avery Johnson.
"We had a huge game from Karl Malone," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "If we hadn't had a huge game from him, we'd be tied right now."
The Jazz were embarrassed in a 22-point loss to the Spurs just a day earlier. Malone even called himself the goat on Saturday after going 6-21 from he field.
But Malone, who refused to watch television or read the newspaper as to avoid being reminded about his poor outing, redeemed himself by making 17 of 28 shots on Sunday.
"You don't see Karl have too many bad games like the one he had the other night, so you knew he would come back big," said Greg Foster.
It was almost a carbon copy of the previous year when Malone struggled in Game 3 against the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semifinals before blowing up for 42 points in the next game.
Malone "was phenomenal," said Spurs forward Chuck Person. "The guy played horrible yesterday, and today he played magnificent."
But as brilliant as Malone was, Ostertag made the play of the day.
The Spurs cut the gap to three with just under three minutes to play and had all the momentum. The home crowd of 28,587 finally had something to cheer about, so they were screaming with all their collective vocal capacity. John Stockton drove the lane, but his short runner missed the mark. Ostertag was there, however, to grab the rebound. He went back up and was fouled.
But having Ostertag at the line is not necessarily a good thing for the Jazz. In fact, his 48 percent foul shooting during the regular season this season was worse than notorious bricklayer Shaquille O'Neal. And he had been even worse in the postseason. Ostertag was just 6-for-18 from the line (33 percent) in the playoffs - which included a rare NBA air ball on a foul shot in Game 1.
But looking like a prize fighter with a swollen and bloodied top lip, Ostertag calmly stepped up to the foul line and sank a pair for his only two points of the game. They weren't pretty - both hit plenty of rim before dropping - but they counted just the same and gave the Jazz a 77-72 lead with 2:34 remaining.
"I did what I had to do - (the foul shots) went in," said Ostertag. "I doesn't matter how they go in as long as they go in."
The Spurs cut the gap to four points on a David Robinson free throw only to have Malone hit a 20-footer with 66 seconds to all but put the game away. The Jazz made three out of four free throws in the final 30 seconds for the final margin.
"It was a great team effort by everybody," said Malone. "Ostertag gave us a lift and Foster gave a great effort down low tonight. It was a wonderful team effort because everybody did what they needed to do."
Malone added a game-high 12 rebounds and four assists to his 34 points. Foster pitched in 13 points, while Bryon Russell, who started in place of Adam Keefe, added 12. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 22 points, while Robinson scored 15 with 11 rebounds before fouling out in the final seconds.
The Jazz shot 51.5 percent from the field as a team while holding the Spurs to 39 percent. And they out-rebounded the much taller Spurs, 38-33.
"They had us on our heels the entire game," said Johnson.
Utah jumped out to a 12-2 run and never trailed - although the Spurs managed to tie the game once late in the opening quarter. By the third quarter, however, the Jazz had the lead back up to 12.
The victory almost ensures that the Jazz will advance to the conference finals again. Utah hasn't lost two games in a row since November - when John Stockton was still recovering from knee surgery. For the Spurs to win the series at this point they'd have to win three in a row - including two in the Delta Center.
Stockton, like the rest of the Jazz, couldn't pinpoint the difference in the team from Saturday to Sunday - but he offered a couple of possibilities.
"Maybe you concentrate better after a poor performance or maybe you get embarrassed and want to make up for it," he said. "I don't know. But I wish I did."
Utah's first of three chances - if needed - to put San Antonio away will be Tuesday night in the Delta Center.
"We'd all like to wrap this thing up and end it at home," said Malone.
If he plays like he did on Sunday, it will happen.
Game 1 Jazz 83
Karl Malone leads Jazz with 25 points
Game 2 Jazz 109
Spurs 106 (overtime)
Stockton has 18 points, 12 assists
Game 3 Spurs 86
David Robinson leads Spurs with 21
Game 4 Jazz 82
Karl Malone leads Jazz with 34 points
Game 5 San Antonio
May 12 at UTAH
TV TIME: TNT, KJZZ - 6 p.m.
Game 6 UTAH at May 14 San Antonio
TV TIME: TNT, KJZZ - time TBA
Game 7 San Antonio
May 16 at UTAH
TV TIME: NBC - time TBA