Jazz 86, Sonics 82
The Jazz on Wednesday night treated themselves to an early March reminder of just what things might be like come playoff time.
But it took torturing themselves to do it.
Utah managed to beat Seattle 86-82 and record the Jazz's first season-series sweep of the SuperSonics, but did so only after mustering a 20-2 rally to go 3 points up at the half of one of their worst starts of the season.
By the time the run was done, and Utah was well on its way to clinching its 16th consecutive winning season, who could blame the 42-18 Jazz for being a bit giddy? Certainly not leading scorer Karl Malone, whose game-high 26-point effort marked the 10th time in his last 18 games that the Mailman has scored 25 or more.
"You have to allow yourself to show a little emotion," said Malone, who expressed his in the form of hand-slaps with teammates Greg Ostertag and Donyell Marshall as the Jazz headed for the locker room to count their blessings.
As they did, a crowd of 19,813 at the nearly sold-out Delta Center roared its approval.
"That was deafening," said Jazz guard John Starks, whose late free throws sealed Utah's victory of a game that was in doubt until its final few seconds. "Just to hear that, it was like a playoff crowd."
Yet the Western Conference-leading Jazz opened play looking like a lottery team.
Utah found itself down by as many as 15 at 34-19 with seven minutes and 44 seconds to go in the second quarter, which is when it seems the Jazz finally realized it was a 7 o'clock, and not a 7:30, tip.
"We were a little lethargic out there," said Starks, who along with the rest of the Jazz had just returned from a three-game Eastern road swing. "I'm not sure what it was. Maybe coming off the road, we just weren't into it early on."
Others had their own hunches.
"You could kind of sense that people were giving up," center Olden Polynice said.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan: "We looked like a team that was really bored by playing."
"I think they came out fired up," Marshall offered with reference to the 31-32 Sonics, who have lost nine of their last 12 games. "They came out ready to take it to us — as well as, I think, we may have overlooked them a little bit."
Before they dug themselves too deep of a hole, however, the Jazz saw the light and closed the half by reeling off runs of 13-0 and 7-0 around a lone Desmond Mason jumper.
The first spurt featured a Greg Ostertag dunk, Bryon Russell's fast-break scoop and a John Stockton 3-pointer that made it 34-32 Sonics, not to mention Ostertag's blocks of shots by Vin Baker, Shammon Williams and Patrick Ewing.
"The last three weeks he's probably played the best basketball he's played since he's been in the league — and he's been hurt," Malone said with reference to Ostertag, who has been bothered by back spasms. "So I told him I'm gonna keep him hurt."
The Sonics were really feeling the pain after Stockton, who had 11 assists to go with his 15 points, made a 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds left in the half, putting the Jazz up 39-36 and bringing the Delta Center crowd to its collective feet.
"It seemed like everybody just clicked for that four or five minutes at the end of the (second) quarter," said Marshall, who had 14 rebounds and 13 points. "Everybody was into it, and pumped up, and hyped."
Only one problem.
"We had a dramatic finish there at the end of the half," Sloan said. "(But) I think we thought that that was all there was all there was going to be to it to win the game."
The Jazz never relinquished their lead in the second half, and led by 2 or more throughout the third quarter. With just more than three minutes to go, two Malone free throws up them up by 11 at 80-69.
Yet the Sonics refused to fold and had the Jazz's advantage down to 2 when Baker hit a 3-pointer to make it 84-82 with 10.6 seconds remaining.
But Starks, who had just hit two free throws prior to that, made two more with 9.8 left, putting the issue to rest and letting the Jazz enjoy their postseason preview.
"It's exciting," Starks said, "when you're down by that many points, then you make a run . . . and you're stopping your opponent at the same time, and the crowd is into it."
Just not a predicament Jazz would want to find themselves in seven or so weeks from now.