After losing in Minnesota to the terrible Timberwolves Sunday, the Utah Jazz were taking nothing for granted Tuesday night when they played the Denver Nuggets, who very well could be the worst team in the NBA right now.
They tried not to remember that the Nuggets had lost 20 of their last 23 games, including seven in a row, were playing without their best player, Dikembe Mutombo, out for the year with a finger injury and had just that day been called a "divided team trying to get the season over" in a story in a Denver newspaper.Playing with a new rotation featuring Jeff Malone as the backup point guard, the Jazz jumped out to a 22-point halftime lead before coasting to a 124-101 win.
The victory, coupled with sliding San Antonio's home loss to Houston, lowered Utah's magic number for clinching the Midwest Division to just one. They can wrap up the title Thursday night when they play another of the Midwest's worst, the Dallas Mavericks, at the Delta Center.
Every Jazz player scored and six players scored in double figures, led by Karl Malone's 24 points and Jeff Malone's 23.
Going into the game, Utah coach Jerry Sloan had been concerned about his club's defensive effort in recent games, but he felt encouraged afterwards.
"I was pleased with the way we responded defensively for the most part," said Sloan. "I didn't know how we'd come out and compete tonight, losing a tough game the other night and after playing five games in seven days."
Sloan, perhaps looking ahead to the playoffs, made a key change in his substitution pattern Tuesday.
All year Sloan has replaced John Stockton at about the 5-minute mark of the first and third quarters with Delaney Rudd or, lately, Eric Murdock. But on Monday, the Jazz practiced with Jeff Malone at the point with Blue Edwards as the off guard.
So with 5:36 left in the first quarter, Tyrone Corbin, not Murdock, replaced Stockton, with Malone sliding over to the point and Edwards to off guard. At the time, the Jazz led 15-13. By the time Stockton returned late in the quarter, the Jazz led by 13.
The next two times Malone played the point, the Jazz and Nuggets were even, but label this experiment positive for the Jazz.
"We've contemplated doing this on a number of occasions and I thought this was the right opportunity to do it," said Sloan. "For the most part, everything went well in that situation."
When Malone was asked about the experiment later, before he could respond, Mark Eaton interjected, "He liked it because he can call all his own plays now."
Well, Malone did get off a team-high 21 shots in the game.
"It was a lot of fun," said Malone of his first significant point-guard experience in over a year. "It's going to take awhile to get comfortable with it, but we can use that lineup effectively in certain situations."
After jumping out to the 35-21 first-quarter lead, the Jazz made it 65-43 at halftime as Jeff Malone scored 10 of the final 14 points of the half.
In the third quarter the Jazz seemed to let up a little as Edwards admitted later. "We have a tendency to relax and a couple of times in the third quarter we did that," he said.Late in the third quarter, the Nuggets cut the lead to 17 at 84-67, but the Jazz regrouped and quickly pushed the lead back to 24.
"The Utah Jazz is a helluva team," said Denver coach Paul Westhead. "We've played some teams that have been up by 20 points that gave us a chance to get back into the game. But Utah didn't give us the chance."
Westhead may have coached his last game against Utah. He has been the subject of media speculation that his days are numbered as Nuggets coach. And the fans are clearly getting impatient with him as they showed with their boos and catcalling.
But the McNichols Arena crowd of 13,537 was in a foul mood most of the evening.
Not only did they boo Westhead during pre-game introductions, they booed the participants in a halftime competition involving remote-control cars. Later they booed an inept shooter in a between-the-period shooting contest.
Denver was led by Reggie Williams with 20 points and backup guard Chris Jackson who scored 16 points.
Besides the Malones, the Jazz got 17 from Corbin, 13 from Edwards, 12 from Stockton and 10 from Mike Brown.
The good news for the Nuggets, who fell to 23-53, is that they'll be one of the top contestants in the Shaquille O'Neal sweepstakes this summer.
The Jazz, meanwhile, improved to 49-27, within a game of Golden State for the second-best record in the Western Conference after the Warriors lost to Portland Tuesday.
After the Jazz play Dallas Thursday night, they head back on the road again to play the Lakers in Los Angeles Saturday afternoon in a nationally televised contest. Then it's back home for three straight home games next week, including Golden State Monday.