SAN ANTONIO — Perhaps it was the picture of John Stockton with a cotton-wad up his nose, blocking the blood. Maybe it was Jerry Sloan, stomping like a madman on the sideline.
Either way, it didn't look like things were going very well Thursday night for the Jazz as they said adios — barring a playoff matchup — to the Alamodome.
Or should it be good-riddance?
San Antonio beat the Jazz 102-98, running its record to 9-3 against Utah over the last 12 regular-season games between the teams in the building which the Spurs will soon vacate.
To do it, San Antonio took advantage of what smelled suspiciously like home cooking. It left the Jazz with a bitter taste in their mouths, too.
"We're the old Jazz, from Utah. That's not cool — you know," said Karl Malone, who had 14 rebounds with his team-high 30 points. "But . . . take nothing from those guys. They still hit shots."
Especially free throws.
The Spurs, who move next season into the SBC Center, made 30-of-32 from the line, including 17-of-17 from 35-point game-high scorer Tim Duncan.
San Antonio's 7-footer seemed be the beneficiary of calls that seemingly went against Utah starting center Jarron Collins virtually every time the
rookie so much as looked funny at Duncan, one of many factors frustrating the Jazz.
Another: The treatment of Stockton, who besides picking up some cheesy fouls was the recipient of an apparently inadvertent but still-painful knock to the nose courtesy of Malik Rose's lower forearm.
"He might as well be a basketball out there," Jazz coach Sloan said of 39-year-old Stockton, the NBA's all-time assists leader. "They can kick, thump, do whatever they want to when he plays. I mean, for a guy that's played this long in this league, I think he's probably the least-respected player I've seen play."
No wonder the flustered Jazz felt outnumbered.
"You can't beat eight people," said 0-for-6 swingman Bryon Russell, who was whistled for a critical late-game charge. "So you (may) as well just try to beat the five that's out there."
Trouble was, even that was no easy task — for many reasons.
One was that Utah was so shorthanded.
Granted, so was San Antonio. Its injured absentees included two usual starters, forward Bruce Bowen and rookie point guard Tony Parker. But whereas the 27-10 Spurs had others fill in nicely, not everyone showed for the Jazz.
Utah played its fourth straight game without usual starting small forward Donyell Marshall, still nursing a bruised right hip, and its first without backup point guard John Crotty, whose sore knee acted up.
Twenty-year-old starting shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson slid over and played admirably in Crotty's place, including a lengthy stretch after Stockton picked up his third four with just under eight minutes left in the second quarter.
And Russian rookie Andrei Kirilenko, who started for Marshall, responded with a career-high 24 points.
In the middle, however, Utah had no help behind Collins, who picked up his own third just a few seconds after Stockton, and eventually fouled out on a questionable call in the game's final minute; John Amaechi played six uneventful minutes, and Greg Ostertag offered only one block, one rebound and two points in his eight minutes.
"Some guys came ready to play, some guys didn't," said Sloan, whose 21-18 club opened a three-game road trip with just its second loss in seven games. "And we're not going to beat anybody unless we can get everybody to step out there and play as hard as they can."
That said, Collins played Duncan solidly. He got his 35, but missed 8-of-17 shots, a far cry from the game earlier this season in which he scored fewer points, 26, but hit 9-of-10 from the field as San Antonio embarrassed Utah 100-80.
"He went out and played him," Sloan said. "You know, Jarron knows who (Duncan) is. There's no question about that. But you've got to play him. If you foul out, you foul out. I'd rather have a guy do that than just back eight feet off of him and just let him do what he wants to do.
"I never worry about fouls that much," he added. "(But) if somebody else is not ready to play, it's a big concern — which appeared to be a problem there for a little bit."
Another Utah woe: Intensity dropped during one crucial fourth-quarter stretch.
"They had a run in there," Sloan said, "because we started walking."
The Jazz jumped on San Antonio early, going up by 9 after a first-quarter run in which they scored on 10 straight possessions. They led by 4 at the half, and were tied at 73 going into the final period.
But, at 77-77, Utah napped. The Spurs awoke, getting two Stephen Jackson 3-pointers in an 8-0 Jazz nightmare.
Utah closed a few times to 1, lastly after a Kirilenko dunk with 17 seconds remaining. That was shortly after a real turning point, Russell's charge on Antonio Daniels while trying to convert Stockton's fastbreak pass into a layup.
"I thought he slid over there late," Russell said. "But, you know — what can I say?"
Not much — which is precisely what Sloan thought of one of his own coaching moves, a late-game blunder for which he assumed full responsibility.
After Daniels missed an off-balance 3 and Kirilenko dunked to make it 99-98 Spurs, Utah sent Daniels to the line with just 16 seconds left. He made his first free throw, but missed the second. Duncan grabbed the rebound , though, over much-smaller Scott Padgett, making Sloan wish he had reinserted 7-2 Ostertag.
"That's a mistake that I made," he said.
Utah fouled Duncan right away, and he made both freebies, giving San Antonio a 4-point margin.
One last Utah barrage was not to be.
A scrambling 3-pointer by Kirilenko and two more by Padgett all missed, sending the Jazz to Dallas with the Alamodome happily in their rearview mirror.