Down in San Antonio, the Spurs are smiling.
While the hottest team in the West was polishing off the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night in Texas, the best team in the East - the Orlando Magic - was delivering a painful blow to the homecourt-advantage hopes of the Utah Jazz. Led by MVP candidate Shaquille O'Neal, the Magic made more plays in a brutal final four minutes to edge the Jazz, 101-98, at the Delta Center."We weren't good enough to play against them tonight," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
There had been cause for Jazz confidence coming into this game. After all, they had beaten the Magic in Orlando just 17 days ago, and the Magic haven't been a great road team. But the Jazz's game is execution, and there were only a couple of stretches where they executed consistently.
"It seemed like we didn't know what we were doing," Sloan said. "We weren't sure what we were running many times."
One indication that something went wrong was the shooting totals of Utah's MVP candidate, Karl Malone. In the first half, the Mailman attempted four shots. He finished with 12 attempts (and a more-than-respectable 26 points) but he averages 19 shots per game.
"I'm not going to shoot it every time, but I'd like to touch it a lot of times," Malone said. "I can't say I'm upset about it . . . but in a big game like this, I'm not supposed to be on the bench."
Malone played 40 minutes, two more than his average, but the time he probably felt he should have been in there was at the beginning of the fourth quarter. While he sat out the first 3:46, as he usually does, Orlando pushed its lead from six to nine.
That didn't seem so important, however, when the Jazz scored 11 straight points to tie it at 94 with 4:36 left. Twenty-eight seconds later, an 18-footer by Malone put Utah ahead, 96-95, for the first time since early in the first quarter.
"We lost our composure a little bit," said Orlando coach Brian Hill.
From that point, the Magic simply made a couple more plays than the Jazz. Utah's next six possessions went like this: John Stockton's pass goes through Malone's hands; Jeff Hornacek misses a shot on the run; Malone's in-bounds pass goes out of bounds; Hornacek sinks an illegal-defense free throw, and Stockton makes one of two free throws; Adam Keefe's shot is rejected by O'Neal; and Malone passes up a shot to pass to Keefe, a bullet that went out of bounds off Keefe's right hand.
"If I had it to do over again, I would have shot it," Malone said.
The Magic, meanwhile, got a tip-in from Horace Grant, a free throw from O'Neal, and two free throws from Dennis Scott (the biggest call of the game, but not the most convincing) and one foul shot by Nick Anderson to lead 101-98 with four seconds left. Hornacek had one last chance, a three-pointer to tie, that rimmed out.
"It did about the same thing my heart did, in reverse," Hill said. "It went in, and it popped out."
Hill credited a change in defensive scheme for a reversal of fortunes against the Jazz.
"They really tore us apart the last game with the pick-and-roll play," he said. "We knew we were going to have to mix up our coverages."
Statistically, the difference in the game was clear. The Jazz outshot (50.7 percent to 47.9) and outrebounded (37-34) the Magic, but the visitors got to the free-throw line more. Utah was whistled for 32 fouls, to Orlando's 24, resulting in 10 more free throws for the Magic. In the final four minutes, the Jazz committed four fouls, the Magic one.
The Jazz, who knew that they could ill afford a loss considering how well San Antonio is playing, obviously saw this as a major setback.
"We missed a lot of easy shots, did a lot of things that aren't characteristic of this team," Hornacek said.
Malone acknowledged that he sometimes passed up shots he should have taken, then vowed it won't happen again.
"We didn't take the shots when they were there," he said. "We thought about it, instead of just shooting it. We have 10 ballgames left, and I'm not going to think about it anymore."
Malone made eight of the 12 shots he took, and also had 10 rebounds and four assists. Stockton totaled 20 points, 11 assists; Hornacek scored 17. Antoine Carr and Adam Keefe, who had combined for 25 points in Orlando, totaled 11 this time; Carr, hampered by early foul trouble, scored four.
O'Neal led the Magic with 28 points, 11 rebounds. Anfernee Hardaway scored 21, Grant contributed 15 and Jeff Turner chipped in 12 off the bench.
Hill downplayed the significance of beating the Jazz.
"I don't know that it's a statement," he said. "They know they can win on our floor, we know we can win on their floor. I'd love to have the opportunity to play them again - it means we'd be in the NBA Finals."
The loss dropped Utah a half-game back of San Antonio in the Midwest Division standings, two games behind in the loss column.
The Jazz left immediately after the game for Anaheim, where they will face the Clippers Saturday night.
GAME NOTES: Malone passed Walt Bellamy for 16th place on the all-time NBA scoring list . . . Orlando's Brian Shaw suffered a groin injury and played just three minutes.