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Jazz dig a hole too big

Valiant last rally isn’t enough to make up deficit

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DALLAS — Teams that get caught up in the catch-up game too often live dangerously.

"That's a bad habit to have," Jazz point guard John Stockton said.

Yet the Jazz seem to have a penchant for playing that way.

And it's really killing them.

Take Saturday night, when Utah found itself down to Dallas by 18 before the first quarter was even done: The Jazz did close within 1 with an incredible fourth-period rally, but in the end the Mavericks prevailed, holding on to win 106-103 in front of a sellout-crowd of 20,146 at the new American Airlines Center.

"That was another dramatic finish we tried to come up with this season," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said afterward. "But we're something like 0-for-7 on dramatic finishes . . . so that is not real rewarding."

Their near-comeback was pretty, though, featuring a late-game run of 17-3 that made it 102-101 Mavs with 6.9 seconds to go.

That's when 34-point game-high scorer Dirk Nowitzki finished a good night's work, first hitting two free throws to make it 104-101.

The Jazz called a timeout, allowing Bryon Russell to go for the tie with a 3-pointer that, in football parlance, was wide-left. Karl Malone grabbed the rebound and put it back for the last 2 of his team-high 28, but by then only 1.2 seconds remained.

Nowitzki went back to the line and made two more, forcing the Jazz to call a 20-second timeout to try one more last-gasp 3. Russell in-bounded to Stockton, whose shot from the left corner, with Mavs point guard Steve Nash blanketing him, also missed the mark.

"We waited too long," said Jazz forward Scott Padgett, who contributed 17 points off the bench. "We got in too big of a hole against them, and they're a great team. You can't dig yourself 18-, 20-point holes against teams as good as Dallas."

"I want to say, 'Yeah, you can dig out of a hole like that,' " Stockton countered. "But you can't put yourself in a position to have to do it all the time."

Yet the 21-19 Jazz — who have now lost their first two games on a three-game trip that ends Monday at Golden State, and three of their last five games overall — did again put themselves in that very position.

"Whenever you do that," Malone said, "you might get away with it against teams that don't run their offense and take quick shots. . . . But teams that are good, and patient, you can't allow yourself to do that."

If the Jazz do get any prize on this occasion, it would be for ugliest hole dug.

Utah missed its first 10 shots from the field, one reason the Mavs were able to take an early 17-3 lead. A few minutes later, it was up 30-12.

The Jazz found themselves scrambling and got no closer than 12 down during the rest of the opening half. They went into the third quarter down by 14 and emerged the same way, waiting until the fourth to begin their not-quite-enough rally.

"We kind of waited too late," said Padgett, who took a charge from Nash that allowed Malone to come back with the basket that made it 102-101. "We didn't make any shots the whole game, it seemed like.

"They've got so many offensive weapons, especially when it comes down to the fact you have to foul them at the end. I mean, they put four, five guys out there that all shoot 85 percent," he added. "Nash and Nowitzki are the guys that are going to have the ball, and those guys don't ever miss free throws. So, it's definitely tough when you get in that situation."

Tough enough that Dallas (28-12) was able to win for the sixth time in its past seven games, leaving the Jazz to ponder their fate in a Western Conference playoff that is not going the way they would like.

"We've let too many close ones get away," swingman Bryon Russell said. "And if we're going to make the playoffs, or whatever, we better start doing something quick. Or we'll be going home early. I hate to look that far ahead, but . . . "

NOTES: Malone on Friday addressed trade rumors from earlier this season, telling the Dallas Morning News "Everybody wanted to downplay it and say it was merely rumors. I don't look at it like that, and still don't look at it like that." . . . Donyell Marshall (bruised hip) missed his fifth straight games and John Crotty (sore knee) his second straight for the Jazz . . . Starks played depite a sprained wrist that was X-rayed (results: negative) Friday . . . Nowitzki has scored 34, 32, 40 points in his last three games . . . Dallas absentees included usual starting shooting guard Michael Finley, still out with a strained hamstring . . . On hand Saturday was Malone's oldest daughter, Cheryl Ford, and fellow members of her Louisiana Tech women's basketball team. The Jazz's charter flight to Oakland today has been pushed back a few hours so Malone and several teammates can watch Louisiana Tech's game at Southern Methodist University . . . Healthy players who did not play Saturday included ex-Jazz big man Danny Manning of the Mavericks, ex-BYU center Shawn Bradley of Dallas and Jazz backup center Greg Ostertag.

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com