These are not easy times for Jazz owner Larry Miller. With only a month left in the regular season, his team is edging closer to a division championship, and all Miller can do is fidget in his front-row seat. The Jazz may be playing Boston, Portland, Chicago, Detroit and San Antonio close, but they're finding trouble in other teams, as well. One night Denver is scaring them to death in the Mile High City; the next it's Charlotte, leading in the final period. Strange as it may seem, the Jazz are an equal opportunity opponent - they even give the bad teams a look. Next up: Minnesota on Saturday.
Thursday night at the Salt Palace, the Jazz spotted Charlotte a nine-point lead before coming back to take a 100-94 win. Not exactly the stuff of championships, but enough to keep them rolling along. The win, combined with San Antonio's surprise loss at Orlando, provided them with a 1 1/2-game lead in the Midwest Division. "We don't feel great, just all right," said Jazz forward Karl Malone.Surely the Jazz could do something to make Miller feel better. Through better than three periods they trudged along in a messy contest with the lowly Hornets, never asserting themselves to any serious degree. "Give them credit. They came in to beat us and they didn't care if we were the first place team," said Malone.
The uncertainty of a Jazz win had a predictable effect on Miller, who went through several stages of angst until the Jazz finally established a six-point lead with 7:24 to go. Minutes earlier, with the Jazz trailing 73-70, Malone had walked over to Miller and said soothingly, "We're going to win. Don't worry. We're going to win." When the game had ended, Malone met Miller in a hallway and placed both hands on his shoulders, saying, "Hang in there. Hang in there."
Which is exactly what the Jazz are doing.
If Malone was certain of the outcome, he and his teammates didn't let anyone else in on the secret until the waning minutes. Their movements were sluggish and labored, their board-work timid. Continuing a season-long penchant for allowing offensive rebounds, the Jazz gave up 16 to the Hornets. "For some reason, against teams below .500 we've really struggled," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "We don't get off to a very good start against those teams. But they get ready for us, obviously."
By most indications, it was supposed to be an easy night. Charlotte doesn't exactly strike fear in brave men's hearts. J.R. Reid is still living off his two-year-old college clippings. Rookie Kendall Gill is too young to make the difference. Johnny Newman has talent, but doesn't get much help. Muggsy Bogues? At 5-foot-7, mostly a novelty.
Meanwhile, the Jazz were back home, where they had won 26 of 31 games on the season, including 10 in a row at one point. Charlotte, the last-place team in the Central Division, had won only seven road games all year. "You have to be careful because sometimes you look at a team and their record, and you think you can just automatically write one in the win column, and that kind of attitude can get you in trouble. You have to go out with the same intensity for this kind of game as you would for a Boston Celtics," said Jazz center Mark Eaton.
From the opening moments, the Jazz began taking on water. Newman had already scored 13 points in the first period, and the Hornets were up by nine. By halftime, the Jazz had whittled the Hornets' lead down to three by employing a number of changes, including placing Tony Brown on Newman and posting Stockton up on Bogues. But after playing the night before against Denver, many of the Jazz's good intentions faltered. "Tonight we were just one step too slow," said Malone. "But we hung in there and kept digging."
Having tied the score in the mid-third quarter, the Jazz then stayed even until 7:55 remained in the game. Eaton rebounded a Malone shot and muscled it up for a basket, drawing a foul, to put the Jazz ahead by four. Though he missed the free throw, it provided the Jazz with whatever motivation they needed. Malone followed shortly with two baskets and Bailey landed a 20-footer to push the Jazz to a 93-85 lead.
In final five minutes, the Jazz carefully nursed their lead while holding the Hornets at bay, working for good shots and protecting the ball. Malone finished with a team-high a 31-points and 15-rebounds, while Stockton added 20 points and 16 assists. Charlotte's best was Newman, who finished with 21 points, only four of those coming in the second half.
With 16 games left, the Jazz (44-22) are beginning to aim for the division championship. "I'm looking forward to the playoffs," added Malone. The Jazz have a better schedule and the lead on Houston and San Antonio. If they tend to business, they could end up the with their second division title ever. "This is my sixth year with the Jazz, and as far as I can remember, we've never been in this situation, where we can control our own destiny," said Malone. "If we don't do it now, it's not the coach's fault, it's not the fans' (fault), it's not the newspapers' (fault). It's the players'."
After coming from behind to beat Denver on Wednesday, and following up with Charlotte, the Jazz seemed somewhat perplexed as to their problems with the flotsam and jetsam of the league. But nobody - Miller included - had major complaints. "The objective is to win games," added forward Mike Brown. "All we're interested is the result, and the result is a `W'."
Added Malone, "If they're close, they're close. All we need to do is look up there and if the Jazz win, that's what's important. None of that other stuff is relevant."
GAME NOTES: Malone, who has had a sore right hand for several games, and hurt it again on Wednesday when he hit it on the rim against Denver. "It's sore, but I'm fine," said Malone. "I'm beat up. But I don't really care. You've just got to play." . . .
Utah has a seven-game winning streak over Charlotte . . . Stockton is 47 assists from reaching the 1,000-assist mark.