Another struggle between the Jazz and Dallas Mavericks gave us the unusual case of Adrian Dantley missing free throws, more of the Eric Leckner revival and the
Mark Eaton offensive explosion. In the end, the Jazz finally solved Dallas' defense Tuesday night in the Salt Palace.By pulling away in the fourth quarter for a 96-80 victory, the Jazz (45-27) stayed five games ahead of Denver and Houston in the Midwest Division with 10 games left; their magic number is six. For at least one day, the focus will be on the race for second place in the Western Conference - the Jazz are one game behind the Suns, entering Wednesday night's game at Phoenix.
The Mavs, meanwhile, lost ground on Portland in the battle for the final playoff spot in the West. While they've become the lowest-scoring NBA team this side of Miami, the Mavs' offense these days consists mainly of clearing out and watching Dantley pound the ball into the floor and work for a shot or eventually pass off to guard Derek Harper.
Where have we seen that before?
Dantley was effective against Mike Brown, scoring 25 points to lead everybody. The only trouble was he made just 3 of 9 free throws; strangely, almost the exact same thing happened when he first visited the Salt Palace with Detroit.
"You're used to me making them," shrugged Dantley. "Once I miss 'em, it's big news."
All kinds of wild stuff happened in the first half, when the Jazz took a 41-39 lead. Karl Malone's first free throw came only in the last 18 seconds and while Eaton scored 10 points, the Jazz guards totaled five - all by Bobby Hansen. The Jazz had almost as many turnovers (13) as missed shots.
"We were a little sluggish," said Coach Jerry Sloan. "Those turnovers end up being important when you're playing a halfcourt team."
The Jazz improved in the second half, losing only four turnovers. John Stockton also scored 13 points in the half as the Jazz shot 55 percent for the game.
The Mavs stayed close in the third quarter, even when Dantley and Rolando Blackman missed five straight free throws. The biggest play of the quarter was Leckner's three-point play with six seconds left, giving the Jazz a 66-61 edge.
Using a huge Leckner-Eaton-Brown front line to open the final quarter, the Jazz took charge. Brown scored twice inside, Stockton and Hansen drove for layups and Leckner added a baseline jumper - all of a sudden, the Jazz had a 15-point lead and were on the way to their first home defeat of the Mavs in three tries this season.
Only with a late flurry did the Mavs hit 80. "They're very stingy here at home," said Coach John MacLeod. "They clog the middle up, they keep you outside . . . they're not going to give you easy shots."
While Dantley danced, scooped and flipped his way around Eaton, he was still ready to award him the Jazz's MVP trophy. "He's the most valuable player on that team, as far as I'm concerned," Dantley said. "The big fella makes a difference. If you take Thurl Bailey and Mark Eaton away, it's like taking Roy Tarpley and James Donaldson away."
Tarpley, back in Dallas following drug rehabilitation, will return to practice this week but will not be activated immediately. Donaldson is out for the season - at least - with a knee injury.
Bailey backed up Malone's 22 points with 18, while Eaton made all six shots he tried and finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds, taking Malone's inside passes. "When they double Karl, it's my job to go to the basket," Eaton said. "Karl and I have struggled all season with that play; it's sort of a timing thing."
While the Mavs are shorthanded, the Jazz have become deeper than ever - just when Sloan had tightened the rotation to eight players. Marc Iavaroni is still benched with Brown starting, but Leckner has worked himself back into the picture lately.
"He's played himself to another look," is Sloan's description. Leckner had 10 points and four rebounds and, while Sloan keeps telling us to look beyond the box score in judging the rookie's progress, he grudgingly praised his overall game.
"He did a couple of things he hadn't done before, defensively," Sloan said.
After staying on the bench for two straight games, Leckner has appeared prominently in four of the last five. "I didn't realize how hungry I was to play," Leckner said. "I made some changes in my life - I really had to focus on what I was doing."
Leckner credits Malone and other Jazz veterans for helping straighten him out. "I'm not telling him what to do, I'm just giving him some advice," Malone said. "You have to take care of yourself. You have to think, on and off the court - you have to have that mentality all the time."
In some ways, Malone's counseling resembles the way Dantley helped him as a rookie. "It's scary how good he can be," Malone added. "Sometimes, I get a little mad at him because I can tell he's not trying hard. It gets kind of frustrating because you see him making the same mistakes over and over. Eric Leckner can be as good as Eric Leckner wants to be."
JAZZ NOTES: Darrell Griffith's slump continues. Only with two late layups did he avoid a shutout. After going 2 of 7 from the field, he's 4 of 20 in three games . . . Harper added 15 points for Dallas, but other than Dantley, who was 11 of 19, the Mavs were 20 of 55 (.364) . . . The Jazz have matched their win total from the 1983-84 division title season; that's also the second-highest in franchise history.