The PoRTland Trail Blazers were that most dangerous of basketball teams. They had come out of their coma, looked around the room, and realized they weren't dead.
They had every reason to be dead. They had done everything but leave a suicide note in the first two and a half quarters of playoff Game 3 Wednesday night in the Salt Palace against the Jazz.With just over five minutes to play in the third quarter they had taken 68 shots from the field and connected on 23, for a cool 34 percent. They looked like a team with a death wish. They had started the game by controlling the opening tip and then committing a backcourt violation. It got worse after that. Terry Porter, the team's super glue at the point, collected three fouls in the first five minutes, earning a quick hook from coach Mike Schuler. Kevin Duckworth, the Blazers' 7-foot, 270-pound center, epitomized the whole sorry situation when he missed a sure-thing hammer-jam three minutes into the third quarter. If looks could kill his scowl would have wiped out three rows deep of the courtside seats. The Jazz were up 13 at the time.
But in spite of all this self destruction, by the latter stages of the third quarter the Blazers managed to make a couple of shots in a row, and when they looked out of the abyss they discovered, to their surprise, that they weren't alone. The Jazz were still down there with them, within reach.
A team that has gotten such a death row reprieve will usually thank its lucky karma and surge happily ahead, which is exactly how Portland responded. The Blazers made nearly half their shots the rest of the game, and went to serious work on the backboards - topping the Jazz by 52 rebounds to 35 by game's end. The team that needed 29 minutes to score its first 50 points needed just 19 minutes to score its last 58.
And surely the Blazers would have surged past the Jazz if not for an uncanny Jazz ability to answer every serious Portland threat down the stretch.
Chief among the answerers was Thurl Bailey, who became Utah's rally ruiner. Nine times in the final 16 minutes of play Bailey scored field goals and/or free throws to answer Portland baskets that had cut the Jazz's lead to five points or less. And on another occasion it was Bailey's rebound, followed by an outlet pass to John Stockton, followed by a pass to a dunking Karl Malone, that cut off yet another Portland uprising.
Consequently, despite cutting the lead continuously to four points, or three points, or two points, Portland never led in the game; also consequently, Bailey wound up with 39 points, a personal playoff career high and the second highest total in his five-year NBA career, exceeded only by the 41 he scored earlier this year in Denver.
Bailey also had eight rebounds, four blocked shots, and helped three little old ladies cross the street before the game.
After the game he was his usual Eagle Scout self, self-effacing, humble, and, well, somewhat bland. Thurl Bailey doesn't exactly subscribe to the Dizzy Dean philosophy of "It ain't braggin' if you done it."
He'd done it and he wasn't braggin'.
"There's a fine line in this game," he said, "You miss them, you're taking bad shots. You make them, you're a possible hero.
"I was going with the flow of the game tonight," he continued. "We were going to the most available guy. Mostly that was Karl and me . . . I just looked for the picks . . . if you come off a pick Mark Eaton sets, you're going to be wide open."
It's the same level-headed attitude Bailey has employed all season long, and, indeed, every season since he joined the Jazz after playing on North Carolina State's NCAA championship team in 1983.
He has always accepted his role, or roles, without much commotion.
He didn't start at forward this year, just as he didn't start last year, and refused to be bothered. He still recorded the third most minutes on the team and was second in scoring with 19.6 points per game.
"Instead of sulking about your situation, if you're not starting or whatever, it's best just to accept it and use it to your advantage," he said. "Hopefully that's what I've done with my role (as the sixth man). It's worked out well enough - it's helped us win games. That's what I want. I feel good about it. Anything you're successful in you feel good about.
"I'll tell you what feels good," he said. "It feels good to be one of the guys the ball comes to in that (pressure) situation. A couple of years ago I don't think that was the case."
It was last night. As a result, the Jazz have a two games to one lead in the series and can avoid a return to Portland with a win Friday night in the Salt Palace.
"It won't be as easy as you might think," said Bailey. "That's a dangerous team we're looking at." Yeah, and they could say the same about him.