Malone delivers Jazz to West finals


SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Jazz, desperate to avoid one of the most embarrassing defeats in NBA history, finally ended Denver's memorable playoff run yesterday.

Karl Malone scored 31 points as Utah halted its playoff skid against the upstart Nuggets with a 91-81 victory in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.

"Everybody loves Cinderella, everybody loves the underdog. So it was neat to get the job done," Malone said. "I love to hunt and fish in the summers, but I'm not quite ready to do that yet."

The Jazz led 3-0 in the series before Denver rallied to square the series 3-3. As the 17th straight home team to win a Game 7, Utah avoided the embarrassment of becoming the first team ever to lose an NBA playoff after leading 3-0.

"I think we wanted it a little more," Malone said. "Contrary to what happened earlier this week, everybody just stuck together and played hard."

He hit 12 of 23 shots and also pulled down 14 rebounds as the Jazz earned only their second trip to the Western Conference finals. In 1992, Utah lost in six games to Portland. This time, the Jazz will face the Houston Rockets beginning tomorrow.

But Malone said it was too early for the Jazz to rejoice.

"Houston will be tough," he said. "Until we touch untouched waters, I have nothing to celebrate. We've been to the Western Conference finals before."

Jeff Hornacek scored 18 points for the Jazz, who now will face Houston, the winner over Phoenix yesterday, in a series that starts tomorrow and Wednesday in Houston.

"Karl took over," Hornacek said. "When he plays like that, it gets ++ everyone else pumped up."

Reggie Williams had 17 points, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf 14 and Brian Williams 13 for the Nuggets, who were making their first conference semifinal appearance since 1988. Dikembe Mutombo got 12 points, 17 rebounds and two blocked shots to extend his NBA playoff record for the series to 38.

"Malone told me as the game ended, 'It was a hell of a series, great job.' And I wished him well, and good luck," Mutombo said.

Denver coach Dan Issel refused to be discouraged.

"Our kids have gotten some incredible playoff experience," he said. "I'm tickled to death. We've exceeded expectations."

The loss ended a remarkable playoff run for the Nuggets, who fell behind Seattle 2-0 in the first round, only to win 3-2 and become the first No. 8 conference seed to beat a No. 1 seed.

Those three victories, the three wins over Utah and yesterday's loss meant that Denver faced elimination seven times in one year, surpassing last year's mark of six by Phoenix.

Only one other team in NBA annals had ever tied a playoff after dropping the first three games, and both shared the same fate. In 1951, the New York Knicks knotted their series with Rochester 3-3 before losing Game 7.

Denver made it 3-3 by beating Utah 94-91 in Colorado on Thursday. But yesterday, the home court and Jazz playoff experience -- 11 consecutive appearances in postseason play -- proved too much for the league's youngest team.

Down by 19 points midway in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets rallied, as they had in each of their victories. This time, however, the Jazz found the answer in their patient halfcourt offense.

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