The occasion of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Farewell Tour stop was just another edition of Jerry Ball in the Salt Palace, where the Los Angeles Lakers totally unraveled Wednesday night. In the face of Coach Jerry Sloan's Jazz defense, the two-time world champions hurried shots, lost their cool and crumbled after a good start.
The Jazz's 105-79 victory gave them a one-game lead over Houston in the Midwest Division, left them only 21/2 games in back of the Lakers for the best record in the Western Conference and made Coach Pat Riley search for answers. The obvious clue was a missing Magic Johnson, but that was not the Lakers' only trouble in a game when they scored 21 points in 16 minutes, settling for one outside shot after another against the Jazz's halfcourt trap.When he walked out of the locker room and across the hall to the Riley Room, his traditional Salt Palace refuge for a few precious moments before he faces the pack of reporters, Riley said, "I need two years to think about this one."
Later, he said, "We did all the things we talked about not doing. That just created a bad game for us. I give them a lot of credit, but we just lost our patience and poise."
That's happened to five straight teams in the Salt Palace since the All-Star break, as the Jazz are playing defense about like, say, Jerry Sloan. "He's such an intense coach - it's fun to watch him, it's fun to see what he's doing with them," said general manager David Checketts.
"Jerry doesn't let us get away with much," said defensive leader Mark Eaton, who had 15 rebounds and became the NBA's No. 2 shot-blocker of all-time - well, at least, since 1973-74, when blocks became a real statistic.
Jazz opponents are shooting .428 from the field, the lowest in the NBA in 15 years. Are they really playing defense in the Sloan image?
"Frank Layden . . . he had 'em playing in his image, too - pretty big," joked Riley.
He added, seriously, "(Sloan's) a competitor, he's tough; they're playing that way."
The Jazz now make their last long trip of the season, a six-game outing that starts at Denver Friday. They won six of seven in this homestand, downing Boston without Larry Bird and the Lakers without Magic, but losing to Dallas with Mark Aguirre. Most impressively, they easily handled three of the hottest scoring teams in the NBA - Denver, Phoenix and the Lakers.
"We stopped some big offensive teams," said Malone. "We shut 'em down completely."
In fact, they played well enough to satisfy Sloan. Almost. "There are still things we can do a little bit better, obviously," he said.
What Sloan does like is the work of his bench these days, with Mike Brown, Bobby Hansen and Jim Les improving. While Malone struggled for 18 points, Darrell Griffith led the Jazz with 19; he and Hansen outscored guard Byron Scott 29-14 - and Scott led the Lakers, while making 5 of 20 shots.
The Jazz saved the Kareem giveaway for halftime, but still opened the show with lasers and spotlight intros. After that, they settled into exactly the kind of game they've had for three straight Lakers visits - Game 6 of the '88 playoffs, Christmas Day and this one. They all start with the Jazz trailing, then rallying like crazy and coasting by halftime.
Wednesday's opening was a little extreme though. Making 1 of 11 shots and losing four turnovers, the Jazz found themselves down 14-2. Moments later, John Stockton went to the bench with foul trouble, bringing on Les, the rookie who is making a career of playing the Lakers.
In October, he made the team with a preseason audition against the Lakers in Provo; in December, he pulled the Jazz through Stockton's first-quarter foul trouble; and this time, he did the same, on his way to a season-high 10 points, plus five rebounds and four assists. Les' career game came on the day that last season's backup point guard, Rickey Green, the all-time Jazz leader in games played, was waived by Char-lotte.
Talk about good timing: The NBA trading deadline arrives Thursday (7 p.m. MST) and while the Jazz have looked for a backup point guard, Les' job seems safe. Not that he's worried - after all, this guy made a living last winter on the intense trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
"If you can't take the pressure of this business, with people looking down your back, you shouldn't be here," he said. "When I have that pressure, I tend to elevate my game."
By halftime, the Jazz had turned a 46-16 run into a 50-32 lead and were feeling generous - they presented Abdul-Jabbar with a Utah-made rifle and an array of Western clothing, besides swearing him in as a Salt Lake County deputy sheriff. Abdul-Jabbar, who scored all of his six points in the first quarter, handled his acceptance speech nicely, noting that he's an American history student and that his father and grandfather were policemen. He earned big cheers for saying, "I'm a jazz fan," before adding, "the music kind."
After that, he announced plans to return for the playoffs and went back to work, while the Lakers' offensive troubles continued. Until Michael Cooper's layup, their scoring total had gone from 16 at 5:44 in the first quarter to 32 at 8:44 of the third quarter. That's 16 points in 21 minutes.
"I can shrug off getting beat, but when you don't do the things you're supposed to do, I can't," said Riley.
"I think it was our defense," said Malone.
Game after game lately, that's a valid argument.
JAZZ NOTES: Eaton's four blocks gave him 2,300, moving him ahead of Cleveland's Tree Rollins. Abdul-Jabbar, who'd played four seasons before blocks were recorded, has 3,059 . . . The Lakers shot 34.8 percent; four of the seven opponents in the homestand shot in the 30s . . . The Jazz (33-20) are 13 games over .500, matching the high in franchise history. They were 32-19 in 1983-84, before finishing 45-37.