Few would have criticized the Utah Jazz for losing to the Seattle SuperSonics.
Shoot, everyone in the basketball-speaking world expected the Jazz to lose, expected the beginning - no, the continuation - of the buildup toward an NBA Finals matchup between the Sonics and the Chicago Bulls.But change your flight plan, Sonics; you're going back to Salt Lake. The Jazz, somewhat miffed by all the talk about Seattle vs. Chicago, stayed alive in the Western Conference Finals with a 98-95 overtime victory Tuesday night at Key Arena. Seattle leads the series, 3-2, with Game 6 scheduled for Thursday night at the Delta Center.
"I saw the headlines that said the Jazz are dead, stick a fork in them, they're done," said Utah's Karl Malone. "But we ain't done yet. We're still cookin'."
Malone said he wasn't too excited about seeing people waiting to buy Finals tickets.
"We knew coming in they were going to try to blow us away," he said. "We also knew at shootaround this morning they had a line, selling Bulls tickets."
Tickets weren't actually being sold, but fans were lining up to buy them, and hey, when you're down 3-1 in a series, you take your motivation where you can get it.
Malone says he doesn't read newspapers, but somebody may have mentioned to him that Sonics swingman Vincent Askew was quoted in the Tacoma News Tribune, guaranteeing that Seattle would close the Jazz out Tuesday. Or maybe the Jazz got fired up by the fact that everytime they turned on a TV, someone was talking about how exciting a Gary Payton vs. Michael Jordan matchup will be.
"No one gave us a chance to win this game," Malone said. "This ranks as one of the best wins I've been associated with in this organization."
"Everyone talked about how the series was over," said Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek. "We could have just packed it in and gone home."
It was obvious early that Hornacek, for one, wasn't interested in ending his season. He scored eight points in the first quarter, while the rest of the Jazz seemed to be deciding if they really were going to make this a game, and he ended up with 27. He hit eight of 16 shots, including four of five from the 3-point line.
Malone got off to a slow start, scoring nine points in the first half. But he pumped in 12 in the third quarter, 10 in the fourth to finish with 29.
In the first quarter, it looked like the Sonics might just conclude Utah's season. Seattle scored the first 10 points of the game and led 24-11 before the Jazz recovered to trail by a mere nine at the buzzer, 26-17.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said he wasn't sure at that point if his players planned to play.
"I didn't know if some guys packed up their U-Haul trailers today or not," he said.
A key stretch occurred in the second quarter. With 4:56 left, Jazz guard John Stockton got his third foul, sending him to the bench. In came Howard Eisley, who has had problems protecting the ball against Seattle guard Gary Payton (who was magnificent again - 31 points, six assists, five rebounds). But over that final five minutes, the Jazz turned a two-point deficit into a three-point halftime lead.
The Sonics threatened to pull away in the third quarter, as Utah suddenly had a hard time locating Seattle guard Hersey Hawkins, who scored nine points in the period. But the Jazz closed the period with an 8-4 spurt, topped off by this weird play: Malone caught the ball at the 3-point line and faked a shot, causing Seattle's Sam Perkins to raise for the block. When Malone pulled the ball back down Perkins landed on him, seemingly right before the buzzer. Referee Bill Oakes emphatically waved off the foul, however, indicating it occurred after the horn sounded, and when Sloan bellowed in protest, ref Ed Middleton hit him with a technical. But Joey Crawford, the lead official, overruled Oakes' call, and, since Sloan's T was for protesting that, withdrew the technical.
Needless to say, the Sonics and their fans weren't pleased.
The fourth quarter was a spirited, back-and-forth affair. Utah held a five-point lead with two minutes left, but Payton nailed a trey and Kemp hit a turn-in shot over Malone to tie it. Malone drove the lane for a potential game-winner but Kemp swatted it - the Jazz wanted goal-tending, but it looked like a good block in replays. On the other end, Kemp tried to drive across the lane and was stripped by Malone - the Sonics wanted, but didn't get, a foul.
Both teams shot poorly in overtime, but the Sonics' four turnovers killed their chances. Stockton, who'd had a tough game to that point, was the key guy in OT, making a crucial steal, grabbing a big offensive board and sinking a pair of foul shots.
"They made some mistakes," Sloan said of the Sonics. "They turned the ball over. I don't think it was our defense. We've had other chances to beat this team and couldn't do it. We just got a little lucky."
Utah vs. Seattle
Western Conference finals
(Sonics lead series 3-2)
Game 1 Seattle 102, Utah 72
Game 2 Seattle 91, Utah 87
Game 3 Utah 96, Seattle 76
Game 4 Seattle 88, Utah 86
Game 5 Utah 98, Seattle 95
Game 6 at Utah, 7 p.m., Thursday
Game 7* at Seattle, TBA, Sunday