Jazz 105, T-Wolves 97
MINNEAPOLIS — After the 32nd game, Jerry Sloan could tell something about his players about which he wasn't necessarily certain at the start of this season.
"I think they like each other," Sloan said.
Little wonder why.
After hanging on to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 105-97 behind a season-high 33 points and 11-of-11 free-throw shooting from Karl Malone on Saturday night at Target Center, the 19-13 Jazz have won four straight. They have won seven of their last eight games. And they have won five of their last six away from the Delta Center, evening their road record at 9-9.
The Jazz are playing decent basketball against decent teams lately, and they seem to know it.
"We've got a team that's good, and no one gives us credit," said forward Matt Harpring, who chipped in 17 points, giving him 50 in two wins over Minnesota this season.
"That's fine," Harpring added. "We're underdogs every time we play, and that's the fun thing."
Utah certainly had its share of good times Saturday, although — much like in their Friday-night win at Milwaukee — much of it did not come until the second half.
Against the Bucks, the Jazz won the third quarter 41-27, then withstood a fourth-quarter Bucks rally to win 118-115.
Against the Timberwolves, who shot a whopping 68 percent in the opening quarter, they trailed by six at the half.
"We knew they couldn't be on fire forever," Harpring said.
Consider the 'Wolves summarily doused in the third quarter, which the Jazz won 34-13, sending them into the fourth up 84-69.
"We got off to a terrible start because they put a lot of pressure on us and we couldn't get . . . into our offense the first quarter. It just looked like we were non-existent as far as an offense is concerned," Sloan said. "We'd grab the ball, and hold it. And then
the third quarter we started setting a couple of screens, and started moving a little harder to get open."
Minnesota did trim Utah's advantage back down to two points when ex-Jazz reserve point Troy Hudson hit a three-pointer to make it 87-85 Jazz with 6 1/2 minutes to go, capping a 16-3 run for the 17-15 Wolves', who got 26 points but only 2-of-9 free-throw shooting from All-Star forward Kevin Garnett.
But Harpring made a Malone-fed layup from beneath the basket 15 seconds later, and from there Utah extended its lead back to as many 10.
That was all the Jazz needed to improve to 2-0 on their current road swing, which concludes Monday night in Chicago. That in mind, they traveled to the Windy City quite content, sensing a team that started 3-7 truly is together, and may stay so no matter what obstacles are blown its way.
"I don't think, talent-wise, we're there with a lot of teams in this league," said guard Mark Jackson, whose eight assists combined with John Stockton's season-high 13 gave the Jazz 21 assists from its veteran point combo.
"But when you do it collectively, and you go out there as a group on the right mission, great things can happen," Jackson added. "I think that's just what we're doing — on both ends of the floor. I've been on teams where you had bad apples, you have bad attitudes, you had cliques. And we have guys that are just about winning."
Winning, and — curiously enough for a team that has three key new additions in Harpring, Jackson and starting shooting guard Calbert Cheaney — playing together.
"The locker room is where it starts, and we've got a good lockerroom team," Harpring said. "Everyone pulls for each other, and we don't have the egos, the selfishness.
"You know, I've been on three other teams, and I can't say that about any of those teams," added Harpring, who also has played in Orlando, Cleveland and Philadelphia. "It's just fun to be a team that's pulling for each other, and we're trying to win, and we're trying to do the right thing."
That's also rather refreshing to old-timers like Sloan and Malone, who haven't always had such fun in recent seasons.
"To me," said Malone, who scored 19 of his 33 in the third quarter, "guys are making the game simple. We started off, everybody wanted to try to do it themselves. Now, you allow yourself to try to let the game come to you."
Added Sloan: "It's the same ol' story: When you have a guy that passes the basketball for an easy shot, it makes the game a lot more fun."
And the 2002-2003 version of the Jazz sure seem to be having plenty of that lately.
"I don't think it's mandatory that guys like each other," Sloan said, "but I think they play and pull for each other a little bit more so than any other time we've had in the last couple, three years.
"That gives you a chance."
NOTES: Jackson's eight assists leave him seven shy of his 10,000th career dish. . . . One night after being suspended with pay for Friday's game at Milwaukee because he violated a team rule regarding postgame exercise requirements following a win over Toronto last Monday night, Jazz reserve big man John Amaechi pitched in nine points in 19 minutes. "The Amaechi story is over. I mean, it's not a big deal. . . . I don't have any animosity over what happened," Sloan said. Amaechi even started the second half over struggling center Greg Ostertag, who was scoreless with one rebound in eight minutes. . . . The Timberwolves were without reserve big man Loren Woods, suspended without pay for missing practices last week. . . . Minnesota also was without guards Wally Szczerbiak, Terrell Brandon and Felipe Lopez, all nursing long-term injuries.