To hear the Houston Rockets tell it, they have the Utah Jazz right where they want 'em.
The Jazz concluded the most successful regular season in team history Sunday with a 103-97 victory over Houston. It was Utah's 60th win (seventh in a row), clinched the homecourt advantage against any playoff team except San Antonio, and gave them the second-best record in the NBA.It was also Utah's third-straight victory over the NBA's defending champs, which would be a warning signal to most teams, but the Rockets seem unfazed.
Asked if the Jazz finally have Houston's number, Rockets forward Robert Horry snickered. "We were just free-stroking tonight," he said. "We didn't really care if we won or lost.
"We know we can beat this team."
They'll get their chance Thursday night at the Delta Center, in the opening game of their first-round playoff matchup. And they'll no doubt have Hakeem Olajuwon at center, whom they didn't have Sunday. Olajuwon was put on the injured list before the game, with a stiff neck.
The Rockets' other star, guard Clyde Drexler, played just 12 minutes - long enough to get a flagrant foul and technical foul - before bowing out with an alleged sprained ankle.
Houston could afford to rest Olajuwon; win or lose, their status wasn't going to change. The Jazz, on the other hand, needed this game - after Phoenix beat the Sonics earlier in the day - to clinch the second-best record in the West.
"It wasn't just a game to go through the motions," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
Early in the game, it looked like the Jazz were going to make short work of the shorthanded Rockets. Houston trailed by 11 with 1:23 left in the first quarter, the home team was flat, the crowd was dozing, and it appeared as if a blowout was a real possibility. But the Rockets drilled five three-pointers over the next eight minutes - three by seldom-used ex-Blazer Tracy Murray - to pull ahead, 43-41.
"Those threes start falling and it makes a big difference," said Utah's Antoine Carr.
"It was a situation where some guys who don't get to play so much wanted to show they could play," said Jazz forward David Benoit.
The Jazz threatened to pull away again in the third quarter, putting together a 17-2 run and building a 12-point lead. But after leading 78-70 through three quarters, they faltered. Houston guard Sam Cassell scored his team's first 12 points of the fourth quarter, while the Jazz were traveling (Carr and David Benoit) and getting shots blocked (Tom Chambers, twice on the same possession). Less than four minutes into the quarter, the lead was down to two, 82-80.
About that time, however, Cassell, trying to win the game singlehandedly, self-destructed. First Adam Keefe stole the ball from him on a drive, then Carr stuffed him on another drive, and then Cassell threw an awful pass to Vernon Maxwell for a turnover.
Down the stretch, the Jazz didn't play spectacularly, but they played better than their opponents. With Cassell suddenly laying low, Maxwell tried to take over the offense, but Mad Max made just one of four threes in a two-minute stretch and got swatted from behind by Benoit. Benoit also drilled a three to make it a seven-point game with 1:51 left, essentially finishing the Rockets.
Sloan said he wasn't sure if his team suffered a letdown upon learning that Olajuwon wouldn't play.
"You say, `Gosh, that's not supposed to happen,' but it does happen," he said. "You get mentally ready to play (against a certain lineup), and all of a sudden it changes on you."
Karl Malone just missed a triple-double again, with 23 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists, though he had his second subpar shooting performance in a row, 8 of 19 from the field. Jeff Hornacek made 7 of 11 shots for 21 points; Benoit totaled 18 points (6 of 16, 3 of 6 on threes), 10 rebounds; Stockton contributed 16 points, eight assists; and Carr scored 10 points. Adam Keefe had eight rebounds in 17 minutes.
For the Rockets, Maxwell scored 26 but missed 15 of 23 shots. Murray totaled 17, Cassell 14. The Rockets' starters scored 28 points.
The Jazz start their pre-playoff regimen of closed-to-media practices Monday, while the Rockets will go out of town for a mini-camp before heading for Salt Lake City.
GAME NOTES: The Rockets ended their search for a big man by signing 6-foot-9 Charles Jones, who had been with the team on a 10-day contract earlier in the season . . . Houston activated Tim Breaux to replace Olajuwon . . . The Jazz outrebounded Houston, 47-39, and outscored them in the paint, 44-34.
Jazz vs. Rockets
Game 1 - Houston at Utah, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., KJZZ
Game 2 - Houston at Utah, Saturday, 8 p.m., KJZZ
Game 3 - Utah at Houston, Weds., May 3, 7:30 p.m.
Game 4* - Utah at Houston, Fri., May 5, TBA
Game 5* - Houston at Utah, Sun., May 7, TBA
* - if necessary