Jazz 113, Cavaliers 95
They won another one, their fifth victory in a row, 10th in 11 games, 12th in 14. Did it in rather convincing fashion, too. Hardly had to try hard in the fourth quarter.
Still, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan refuses to be conned. Sure, Utah beat Cleveland 113-95 on Tuesday night at the Delta Center and improved to 39-20. But he knows better.
The Midwest Division-leading Jazz didn't show enough first-half defense to stop a stampeding horde of Army ants, let alone NBA Western Conference front-runners like the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland.
"The way we're playing," Sloan said after the big win, "I think they'll just walk through us, because we can't really . . . "
Sloan interrupted his thought, trying to make a case for why he insists on challenging a team that has lost just once in the past three weeks.
Forget the 30 points that Karl Malone scored, marking the fourth time in five games he has put up that many or more. Forget John Stockton's 18 assists, a total matching his season high. Forget Bryon Russell's 10 rebounds, matching the most he has pulled down this season.
Forget it all, Sloan suggests, and remember this:
"If you give up the easy baskets that we gave up in the game (Tuesday night), when a team comes in and runs you down the floor like they did . . . in the first half," he said, "that doesn't indicate that you're going to compete against teams that are really going to come in and get the quick shots inside early.
"We're not going to win," Sloan added, talking at this point not about individual games but about bigger things like a playoff series or two, "until we make the commitment to be a good defensive team all the time, instead of trying to outscore the other team."
That, folks, is essentially what Jazz players heard from Sloan at the half.
Utah led 62-55 at that point but only after having gone up on the travel-weary and turnover-prone Cavaliers by as many as 15 less than six minutes into the game.
It just wasn't good enough, and Sloan let them know it.
Good habits, after all, start early. So, too, do bad ones.
"When you get to the playoffs," Sloan said, "and you think you're going to change your game around and go play real tough defense, it's too late."
Jazz players know.
They've heard it all before from Sloan, and they're bound to hear it a few zillion more times before their days playing for him are done. But apparently it still makes some sort of an impression, because the Jazz did in the third quarter Tuesday what they did not do in the first two against the Cavs.
"Put the clamps on them," said Jazz center Olden Polynice, who chipped in 10 points himself. "That was it: We picked up our defensive intensity. I thought that was critical in the second half."
He wasn't alone.
"I thought we picked it up a little, intensity-wise, in the second half," Stockton said. "We had a good start in the game, and we just didn't sustain it."
Instead they got caught up in trying to outdo the Cavs, who had won three straight on the road but were on the tail end of a four-game trip out West.
"When you're scoring so easy, I think sometimes it makes it easy to get caught up in," said guard Jeff Hornacek, who shot 7-of-9 from the field, including 2-of-2 from 3-point range, and finished with 18 points. "They'll take a shot, and we really don't have to challenge it, because we know we'll score at the other end. I think we had a little case of that (Tuesday night)."
Sloan did his best to cure it at the half, and the Jazz responded by allowing Cleveland just 17 third-quarter points. By then they led by 14 at 86-72, a margin that would only grow larger over the final 12 minutes.
Whether that was a case of Dr. Sloan working his magic or the no-D cough simply working its way out of the Jazz's system is subject to debate. The only thing known for certain is that it happened, at least for this game.
"If Jerry yelling at us was part of it, then that's what it was," Polynice said. "Whatever it was it worked. We did it, and that was it."
Sloan just wants to be certain they can do it in the future, too.
He knows the Jazz have it easy lately, despite opening March by playing 10 of its first 13 away from home.
At Detroit last Wednesday, Utah caught the Pistons on the back end of back-to-backs. In Charlotte last Friday, the Jazz beat a team that was missing injured Derrick Coleman and still mourning the January car-crash death of popular player Bobby Phills. At New York on Sunday, the Knicks were without Marcus Camby and Charlie Ward due to injuries.
Against Cleveland, starting point guard Andre Miller from the University of Utah looked the NBA rookie he is — scoring 12 of his team-high 15 points and tallying six of his eight assists in the opening half but playing in the second half as if all the travel was finally starting to catch up with him.
It all adds to ample reason for Sloan to be concerned, despite the winning ways of late. That was the message he delivered Tuesday. It was received, too, by everyone from Stockton to Malone.
"I don't know if we're in a position to have any swagger," Stockton said, "but we are playing a little bit better, and we are, I think, understanding each other a little bit."
"If you ask other people, it's not good enough," the Mailman said. "We're not playing where we want to be as of yet, but we're getting better."
It's a decent defense that Malone makes. Just not good enough for Sloan to smile.