PORTLAND -- Karl Malone will be awarded his second MVP trophy sometime in the next week or 10 days. Maybe that will ease the pain.
Then again, maybe it won't.Malone has played in 148 career playoff games during the past 14 years. Of those, 71 have been losses. But perhaps none have hurt more than Thursday night's 92-80 setback to the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden.
This was supposed to be the Utah Jazz's year. With Michael Jordan out of the picture, the Jazz were the odds-on favorites to win their first NBA title in franchise history.
Instead, the season ended in disappointment yet again -- this time two steps away from the NBA Finals. And no one was more to blame for the final loss of the lockout-shortened 1999 season than Utah's resident sharp-elbowed superstar.
He knows it, too.
Malone, who is used to carrying the Jazz on his broad shoulders, let his teammates down on Thursday.
"If I could have given them a little bit of help, we could have won this game," he said.
He's probably right. Portland's final 12-point margin of victory is deceiving. In fact, the Jazz trailed by only two, 80-78 with under 70 seconds to play. If Malone hadn't been struggling through what he called "one of the worst games I've ever played," the Jazz just might be preparing for Saturday's Game 7 against the Blazers right now. That one would have been in the Delta Center where odds are the Jazz would have won.
Instead, the Blazers will be in San Antonio for a Saturday game against the Spurs in the first game of the Western Conference finals.
If Malone would have had an "average" night -- about 23 points on 50-percent shooting and 10 rebounds -- Utah would have been in good shape on Thursday. Even when Malone has an off night he scores double figures as a rule. But he had just eight points on Thursday, making just 3-of-16 shots from the field (18.7 percent). He even seemed shell shocked in the fourth quarter, not wanting the ball. The Jazz rallied from nine points back to make it a game, but Malone wasn't a factor. He took only two shots in the final period, missing both. He didn't attempt a single shot in the final five minutes.
Brian Grant certainly deserves some credit for the defensive job he did on Malone, but he wasn't the only reason the Mailman struggled. He simply missed shots.
Malone's teammates weren't pointing fingers, however.
"Anyone that would take away from what Karl did all year after one bad game is a lunatic," said Adam Keefe.
Jeff Hornacek and John Stockton -- the other two-thirds of Utah's ancient (by NBA standards) "big three" -- had solid games. So did Bryon Russell, Utah's rising star. Hornacek finished with a team-high 21 points and six rebounds, which was second-best on the team. Stockton scored 14 points with 10 assists. Russell added 17 points and five boards.
"Jeff did a great job," said Malone. "Jeff, Bryon, Stockton -- everybody except me (played well). My teammates did everything they could do, and I didn't do anything."
Actually, Malone wasn't the only one who had an off night. Greg Ostertag struggled again, as did Howard Eisley, who finished 1-for-5 from the field on the night -- right on his series average of 20 percent shooting for the series. In fact, every time Stockton came out of the game for a rest, the Blazers would get on a roll, it seemed.
The first time Stockton came out and the Eisley entered, for instance, the Blazers went on a 14-5 run, opening up a 26-18 lead early in the second quarter. Stockton re-entered the game, and the Jazz immediately scored 13 consecutive points. Utah's 17-1 run gave it a 35-27 lead with four minutes remaining in the first half.
Stockton picked up his third foul and left the game with the Jazz up 39-34 late in the second quarter. But with Stockton on the bench, the Blazers reeled off an 8-3 run to knot the game, 42-42, at the half.
Utah trailed by three points entering the fourth quarter when the Blazers scored the first five points of the period -- again with Stockton on the bench -- on a Greg Anthony 3-pointer and a 16-footer by Rasheed Wallace. Portland's 69-61 lead matched its highest of the game to that point.
It was all uphill for the Jazz from there.
Utah was still down seven with under four minutes to play when it started one last rally nearly reminiscent of Game 4 in the Sacramento series. Russell scored a layup to cut the gap to five. Stockton then hit a couple of free throws with 2:35 to play, and the gap was three. After a J.R. Rider hoop put the Blazers back up five, Russell made a layup with two minutes left, and the Jazz got the ball back when Anthony launched an airball from 3-point range. Hornacek then made one of two free throws, and the Jazz were within two points with 1:21 to play at 80-78.
This time, however, there wasn't a Stockton miracle shot at the buzzer. Jimmy Jackson made four straight free throws, followed by eight in a row by Rider, and the Blazers had the victory.
"It's just a huge, huge win," said Portland coach Mike Dunleavy. "To come up big like this against a team like Utah is just so rewarding and satisfying."
Rider, thanks in large part to a 14-for-14 night from the foul line, finished with a game-high 24 points. Jackson scored 17 off the bench with Wallace and Arvydas Sabonis netting 14 each. Portland also dominated the glass, out-rebounding the Jazz 42-29.
"We got beat by a better team tonight," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "I have no problem with that."
Now an interesting off-season begins for the Jazz. Utah owns the rights to three late first-round draft picks. It also has its own second-round selection. Last year's second-rounder -- Torraye Braggs from Xavier, who played in Europe this season, is expected to get a tryout, too.
Meanwhile, Malone, Hornacek, Stockton, Shandon Anderson, Thurl Bailey, Todd Fuller and Greg Foster are all free agents.
Suffice it to say, Jazz director of basketball operations Scott Layden and owner Larry H. Miller have their work cut out for them this summer.