MINNEAPOLIS — A couple of cold starts and one very hot scorer conspired Friday night to do in the Jazz, who looked less than lukewarm in their first game back after a five-day break.
Part of the problem was that they got down by 8 to start. Part was that they were outscored 12-4 to open the third quarter. But the biggest part was played by one Wally Szczerbiak, who scored a career-high 37 points in Minnesota's 93-86 victory over Utah.
In Wally's World, it did not matter that the Jazz came in riding a four-game winning streak and nearly a full week's worth of rest.
That was enough to tilt the orb of Jerry Sloan, who couldn't believe what he saw from a team idle since beating Philadelphia last Saturday night.
"You know, he's a good player. He can shoot out on the 3-point line, he can put it on the floor. He worked off of screens well," Sloan said of Szczerbiak, who scored 26 of his points in the second half, including 16 in the fourth quarter. "They saw that we couldn't get over screens, we couldn't fight screens, and they just screened us like we were a piece of butter out there. We just melted and fell right to the floor, and he came along and he was wide open."
The Jazz coach threw everything but the kitchen sink at Szczerbiak, using DeShawn Stevenson, Andrei Kirlenko, Donyell Marshall and Bryon Russell to guard him.
But they all got toasted.
"The same thing happened with all of them," Sloan said. "When they got screened, we just slid right down to the floor. It's too bad there wasn't a hole there — where we could crawl under it and not have to worry about ever seeing the guy again."
That left Sloan to sarcastically address the question of if he had done the right thing by trying so many defenders against the Timberwolves' shooting guard: "Maybe I should have just stayed with one guy, and let him get maybe 80 points."
Despite all of Szczerbiak's fourth-quarter heroics — in the first seven minutes of the period he had a steal, a 16-foot jumper, a short jumper off the fastbreak, a 20-footer (that actually resulted from a Kevin Garnett pass intended for Felipe Lopez) and a 6-foot runner — the Jazz still were in it reasonably late.
After blowing an 11-point halftime lead in part by scoring only 12 points in the third quarter, Utah led by two with eight minutes to go, and was down by only four after Marshall made 1-of-2 free throws with 4:42 remaining.
But when Szczerbiak hit a trey to make it 82-75 with 4:25 left, then sealed it three minutes later by hitting three straight free throws, the Jazz were well on their way to slipping back to .500 at 16-16, and Minnesota was headed toward 22-9.
"In the second half," said Szczerbiak, a former Miami of Ohio star, "I just wanted to come out and not let us lose."
"He just wouldn't take no for an answer," Jazz point guard John Stockton said. "He didn't make all his shots (hitting 14-of-24), but the ones he missed, he stayed in the play and made something else happen. And that's how you win ball games."
The Jazz, meanwhile, are back to having trouble doing just that.
The failure of Utah's starting unit — Stockton, Stevenson, Marshall, Karl Malone and rookie center Jarron Collins — to click is a big reason.
"It's a concern," said Malone, who started off shooting 3-of-11 and wound up with a team-high 15 points. "There is no question about it: we are getting off to slow starts."
The bigger question is why.
Sloan suspects he knows.
"They don't guard anybody, and they don't execute," said Sloan, who did not say if he would make changes for tonight's visit to Chicago. "They just come out and see who can get the first shot off, who can kind of just stand around. ... It looks like it's too much of an effort for us to really execute. I don't know what the deal is.
"I don't know if we're tired of winning, or what," he added. "It looks like winning is not really an important part of what we're trying to do, because we certainly aren't getting the things done that give you a chance to win."
Jazz starters denied that's the case.
"I think winning is very important to this team," Marshall said. "We all want to win."
Saying it is one thing. Doing it, however, is another.
Friday, a fella named Wally saw to it that the Jazz didn't.