SAN ANTONIO — Just getting here, the Jazz had quite the bumpy flight from Houston the other night.
With a driving rainstorm stirring as they took off, cross-winds rattled their charter plane, lightning in the clouds brightened the cabin, and one jarring drop in elevation was just a little too much for complete comfort.
That's nothing, though, compared with the season free fall they're in these days.
Utah dropped a 106-88 decision at NBA-leading San Antonio on Thursday night, plummeting the 47-24 Jazz even farther back in their quest to overtake the 51-21 Spurs. Making that task tougher is the fact San Antonio won all four of its games with Utah this season, marking the Spurs' first-ever season series sweep of the Jazz in a rivalry that dates from 1976.
The latest loss capped a terrible Texas triangle for the Jazz, who lost at home to Dallas on Monday night, were blown out by the Rockets in Houston on Tuesday and never really stood a chance in San Antonio. Now, the notion of winning the Western Conference's top seed takes a back seat to the more-pressing need of simply getting their own rather pitiful act together.
"All we have to worry about is playing basketball," swingman Bryon Russell said. "We can't worry about seeds now. We have to worry about winning."
The Jazz, 4-6 in their last 10, haven't done that since March 24 against the hapless Washington Wizards, and they haven't done it against a Western Conference playoff contender since way back on March 9 vs. Phoenix.
Still, even with only 11 games remaining in their regular season, some in Utah's camp hold onto hope. Guard John Stockton is one among them.
"There's not a lot of time," Stockton said, "but anything can happen."
Before it does, though, even Stockton will concede things must change.
For one, Utah must tighten what has been a rather lackadaisical defense of late.
Russell talked about the Spurs being "on fire," and forward Donyell Marshall said San Antonio "shot the lights out."
The Spurs did shoot an amazing 77.4 percent en route to a 67-43 halftime lead Thursday, their highest-scoring opening half of the season. Moreover, San Antonio hit 9 of 10 3-pointers in that first half, using the threat of 29-point game-high scorer Tim Duncan on the inside to open things up on the outside for the likes of Danny Ferry, who made his first three trey tries.
But the Jazz, at least in Stockton's mind, didn't do enough to make things tough for San Antonio: "I'd like to think you get a good start defensively," he said, "and they don't get that hot."
Then there is the matter of the Jazz's struggling offense, which produced just 18 points during an opening quarter in which the Spurs doubled that output.
"We're having a tough time deciding what to do on offense," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who called the Spurs "the best team we've seen all year long."
Sloan has questioned his club's shot selection in recent games and said Thursday that "being able to convert is one of the things you have a problem with when you take tough shots." He is bugged most by ill-timed outside shots, something the Jazz took in San Antonio even while Karl Malone, who finished with a team-high 24 points, got himself going early on the inside.
"You can't hang out and take tough shots," Sloan said, "because now you play right into their (hands)."
"Really," he said, "it's about having confidence in what this team does well, and that is execute and have trust in each other on both ends of the floor."
One member of the Jazz whose confidence has really been rather fragile is starting shooting guard John Starks, who had a 1-for-7 shooting night on the heels of recent games in which he went 2-for-13 (against Dallas) and 0-of-5 (vs. Portland on March 22).
"Right now," Starks said, "I'm hurting the team, because I'm not knocking down shots."
Starks, like other members of the Jazz, tried to find a silver lining in the storm clouds, and for that they looked to a second-half stretch in which they cut San Antonio's lead to 13 with just fewer than five minutes remaining.
"When you're struggling as a team," said Malone, whose layup made it 96-83 before the Spurs pushed their advantage right back up to 20, "you build on things like that."
A start, perhaps, although not much of one in light of Utah's struggle to get things going from the beginning: In less than 12 minutes Thursday, the Spurs were up by 20.
"For some reason, we've been getting off to bad starts," Starks said. "We're going to have to do a better job, if we meet (San Antonio) in the playoffs, of not letting them dictate what we do offensively at the beginning."
For the sake of safe landings, in other words, it helps to take off well.
MISC.: Even if Utah closes 11-0, San Antonio would have to finish 6-4 or worse for the Jazz to win the Midwest Division title. . . . This marks the first time since the Los Angeles Lakers won five games in Malone's 1985-86 rookie season that a team has swept the Jazz in a regular-season series lasting four games or longer. . . . Jazz guard John Stockton played his 1,329th regular season game, moving him into a tie for third place with Moses Malone on the NBA's all-time games played list. Stockton moves alone into third place behind Robert Parish (1,611) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1,560) tonight, when the Jazz play Cleveland at the Delta Center. . . . Thursday's game featured three of the only five active NBA players to spend their entire career of 12 or more years with the same franchise: Stockton, Karl Malone and San Antonio's David Robinson. Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon and Indiana's Reggie Miller are the other two. . . . San Antonio's nine 3-pointers in the first half tied a Jazz opponent high for treys in a half. . . . In the Alamodome crowd of 24,327: fight fiend Mike Tyson.