SALT LAKE CITY — P.S.: The Jazz won too.
Utahans rallied 'round their Final Four college basketball team Saturday, found some leftover emotions for their pros, and then crowned this the hoop capital of the world for a night, after second billing likewise turned out to be first rate. A 106-91 victory over the Lakers before 19,911 at the Delta Center took care of that, after Karl Malone and Greg Foster had taken care of things too.
The critical loss angered the Lakers as much as it dropped them 2 1/2 games behind Seattle in the Pacific Division and three behind the Jazz in the Western Conference with 12 to play. Rick Fox fouled out with 3:14 left, walked to the bench and kept on walking to the locker room, then, in as unusual a move, wouldn't talk afterward. Coach Del Harris ripped Foster the way he has ripped few others, with Shaquille O'Neal on backup vocals.
Of course, this came after O'Neal had 31 points but tied his season low with five rebounds in 33 minutes as the Lakers' run of 10 consecutive victories on the boards went down in flames, 42-23. They lost that battle big and just as convincingly lost the chance to clinch the season series against the Jazz and gain the tiebreaker that may come in handy later, but instead will have to wait until the April 19 finale at the Great Western Forum for that opportunity.
Malone, the Lakers would have expected to get under their skin. By making 17 of 18 free throws, he finished with 31 points along with eight rebounds.
Maybe it's something about the Jazz centers (see: Ostertag, Greg). Foster, the one-time UCLA Bruin who ended his college career at Texas El Paso, gained his own spot in Laker lore with 4:21 remaining in what long ago had become a blowout when he charged down the lane for a dunk, circled past the visitor's bench as he headed back upcourt, and dragged his finger across his throat. As in, curtains.
Harris exploded, demanding that Foster get a technical for taunting, and charged past midcourt to scream at referee Joe DeRosa, only to get one himself. Harris kept up his demands and appeared to be on the verge of getting ejected before he cooled.
"Greg Foster hasn't earned the right to be anything in this league," Harris said later in even tones. "He's lucky that he's just been able to stick with a team.
"He has not got the right to taunt anybody. Wait until he's done something in this league."
Added O'Neal: "He's a bum. He's just hiding behind [Jeff] Hornacek, [John] Stockton. He's a bum, period."
And from Robert Horry: "Some guys have the maturity level to go out and win gracefully, and some guys don't."
Foster, of course, insisted he did.
"It's not something I set out to do," he said. "I was just having fun out on the floor. I've always played with emotion. I'm not going to stop that."
If nothing else, the emotions provided a distraction for the Lakers, for the options were even more aggravating. Who wants to consider the consequences of the defeat instead?
The end to the five-game winning streak, and only the second loss in the last 13 games, proved to be a resounding, if temporary, end to their momentum. It also forces them to go back to depending on other teams to help them again put pressure on the Jazz and the SuperSonics, starting with the Jazz and the SuperSonics. Those teams play Tuesday at KeyArena.
"It's a tough loss," Nick Van Exel admitted. "We came here expecting to win. We played hard, but they outgutted us.
"There's still a lot of time. But like I said before, up in Seattle. It's going to be tough to catch either of the teams. They're not going to lose many games."
Especially Utah if it plays the way it did Saturday, taking advantage of foul trouble that limited O'Neal to two minutes in the third quarter to turn a one-point edge with eight minutes left into a 13-point lead on Howard Eisley's 35-foot runner at the buzzer. The Jazz cushion got as big as 19 in the fourth and was 16 when Stockton and Malone came out--with 1:14 left.
So many things for the Lakers to remember for next time. Almost as many as they have to forget.