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Utah Jazz: Interim win

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As halftime speeches go, it's not going to rank up there with Knute Rockne's "Win one for the Gipper."

"I just said 'Let's go,' " said Utah Jazz interim head coach Phil Johnson. "It was nothing sensational."

He gets no argument here. Still, it — or something — worked, and the Jazz responded by rousing themselves from a listless first half and blowing out the Portland Trail Blazers, 95-71, Wednesday night at the Delta Center.

The reason Johnson was coaching, and why he bears the "interim" label, is that he replaced coach Jerry Sloan, who is serving a seven-game suspension for shoving referee Courtney Kirkland during Tuesday night's game in Sacramento.

That was a hard-fought encounter for the players, too, and the Jazz seemed to be suffering some letdown effects at the start of Wednesday's game.

"The first half it looked like we were running in mud," Johnson said, already dipping into the Sloan cliche bag. "I think they were just a little lethargic after the big win last night."

The Blazers, meanwhile, came into this contest having won five in a row, including a narrow victory over the Nuggets on Tuesday in Portland. But Portland has been getting by somewhat shorthanded thanks to a suspension of its own, a seven-gamer being served by Rasheed Wallace that, conveniently for the Jazz, concluded with Wednesday's final buzzer.

"We kind of ran out of gas," Portland's Bonzi Wells said. "Look at our schedule. We've been on the road for two weeks. We had nothing left in our tank. I know I didn't have anything in my tank."

Actually, the Blazers had a four-game, one-week road trip before returning home to beat Denver, so Wells was exaggerating a tad. Worse, he failed to give the Jazz credit for one of their best halves this season. The Blazers made just five field goals in the second half — a Jazz opponent record low — while shooting 15.2 percent.

More surprising than Wells' failure to concede anything to Utah was the fact the Jazz roused themselves so successfully. In the first half, they looked like a team willing to accept a whipping. They got outrebounded, shot a dismal 34.8 percent from the field and trailed by 10, 47-37, going into the locker room.

That allowed Johnson an opportunity to give his "Braveheart" speech, though he apparently chose to offer the abridged version.

Jazz guard John Stockton chuckled when asked if that's what got the team going.

"No, it wasn't that good," he said.

Not surprisingly, Stockton was at a loss to say exactly what did light a fire under the Jazz. He didn't deny that the fire was there, however, nor did his teammates.

"We were a step-and-a-half slow in the first half and they were hitting everything, but then all of a sudden we really got after it on the defensive end and got aggressive," said Utah's Karl Malone.

They also got after it on the offensive end, hitting their first eight shots of the third quarter to take a 55-53 lead. They trailed once after that, briefly, at 57-55, before an 11-2 spurt left them in front for good.

Midway through that stretch, Utah's Andrei Kirilenko hit the shot of the night. He cruised to the basket, looking to ram home an alley-oop pass from Mark Jackson, as they've teamed on so often lately. But Portland defender Jeff McInnis saw it coming and grabbed Kirilenko's arm, so all Kirilenko could do was slap the ball with his other hand toward the basket. It went in, the crowd went nuts, and Kirilenko made the free throw to complete the three-point play.

Even Malone got excited, jumping off the bench to cheer his teammate.

"To have body control to guide that in was pretty amazing, pretty awesome," Malone said.

"That was a big play," Johnson said. "Things like that get the crowd into it."

Johnson also was quick to point out that his veteran players weren't too bad, either.

"Stockton and Karl, again, were unbelievable in the second half," he said. "Stockton took the game over for a certain amount of time and was just sensational."

Stockton finished with 13 points, seven assists, four rebounds, three steals and a rare blocked shot. Malone had a near-triple-double — 20 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.

He also finished with a sense of pride in his teammates.

"Sometimes you look around, look for the excuses, why you should feel sorry for yourself," Malone said. "This was one of those 'reach down' kind of games."

NOTES: Portland's Dale Davis got the only individual technical foul of the game, for hammering Matt Harpring's face in the first quarter . . . The Jazz forward was also on the receiving end of the game's only flagrant foul, a wrap-around hack job by Wells in the fourth quarter . . . Harpring led all scorers with 21 points . . . Dunk of the night was made by Utah's Tony Massenburg, a thunderous lefthander off a feed from Stockton.

E-mail: rich@desnews.com