The end of the road for the Utah Jazz came long before the final horn sounded, Tuesday night at The Summit. It came in a thunderclap of Houston 3-pointers raining down from the sky at the onset of the game. It came in a string of broken plays and hurried shots when the game was still in its early stages. And it came in the looks of dismay as the Rockets' lead climbed first into double figures, then continued to rise.
After five weeks of playoff basketball, the Jazz's season closed out with a 94-83 Houston victory. And though the Jazz made a valiant rally to rescue a hopeless situation, they never really had their chance to win. It was over from the moment Houston's Vernon Maxwell unloaded the first of his four telescopic 3s in the first quarter, the first time Hakeem Olajuwon spun and faded. It was over when Houston's Robert Horry drifted out to the 3-point arc himself and nestled in a shot of his own just four minutes into the game.And perhaps it was even over as far back as Sunday afternoon in Salt Lake City when the final seconds ran out on the Jazz in a game that meant too much.
"Too much," repeated Jazz center Felton Spencer. "It was just too much too early. We couldn't come back from that big a deficit."
The loss ended what was, in some ways, the greatest season in Jazz history. They were still playing games on May 31, the latest date ever for a Jazz team. They made it to the Western Conference finals for only the second time in franchise history. They upset San Antonio in the first round and held off an inspired Denver club in the second round.
Yet at the same time, it was a year of dismay. Because when it got down to the end, the Jazz knew that they, as well as anyone else, could have won the title. Of the teams left in the playoffs, the Jazz split two games during the regular season with Indiana, swept New York and split six games with Houston. There were simply no unbeatable teams, no heirs to greatness among the contenders this year. There were no Michael Jordans or Magic Johnsons or Larry Birds waiting at the end of the line to sweep away their dreams.
"I look at it as a missed opportunity," said Jazz forward Karl Malone, whose 31 points led the Jazz.
And in a strange way, Tuesday's game characterized the Jazz season. Although they lost game early, they never closed up shop until the end of the business day. "We have pride," said Malone, when asked what kept the Jazz going when they trailed by as much as 26 points. "Everybody in the country was watching."
Although the Jazz were clearly in trouble before the game ever began - trailing the best-of-seven series 3-1 - they had at least one reason for optimism. After two games battling the flu, Malone was finally nearly back to normal health for the first time in several days.
"I never question God and I never will," said Malone. "But to get sick at such a time . . . whew!" he said.
But Malone's return wasn't nearly enough to offset what the Rockets had in store. Maxwell dropped in the first of his treys 11/2 minutes into the game and followed a minute later with another that gave Houston an 8-0 lead. Halfway through the period the Rockets had made four treys and six of their first seven shots. Maxwell would go on to made four treys in the first period, five in the game.
"We knew going in they would try to beat us by 50," added Malone.
And they nearly did.
As the game advanced, Houston's lead expanded. It went from 18 at halftime to 26, thanks to an 8-0 run near the end of the third quarter. "You just can't dig yourself a hole like that," said Malone.
"When we started hitting, we knew they were in for a long night," said Horry. "When Max is feeling it, he could go for 30 or 40 or 50 on them."
Faced with the prospects of abject failure, the Jazz finally made their run, scoring 14 straight points in the fourth period. Suddenly the Rockets were leading by just eight and taking bad shots and throwing the ball away and spinning crazily off into the night.
"I don't think they were moving as freely as they were early on," said Jazz guard John Stockton.
But soon the summer came rushing up for the Jazz. Stockton missed a 17-footer, rebounded his own shot and missed on the follow. The Jazz had two other chances to score with an eight-point deficit but failed both times. Finally, Horry slashed inside for a dunk with 1:38 to go to put the lead back up to 10. The Jazz wrapped up the night launching threes and putting the Rockets at the free throw line.
When the game had concluded and the Rockets celebrated their way off into the locker room, the Jazz took a typically low key approach. They credited the opposition and shrugged at their own failures. And they remembered the early game when it all got away from them for the final time.
"They just came out and took us away from everything we wanted," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "They came out hard and wanted to take the ballgame away early. They just outplayed us."