Utah toted a weighty piece of psychic baggage into its first-round NBA Western Conference playoff series against Phoenix last week. And when the second game ended Sunday night at the Salt Palace, the baggage was still there, as heavy as ever. Maybe heavier.
No, the Jazz did not duplicate last season's spectacular first-round, three-game flameout against lowly Golden State; a 113-96 victory over the Suns in last Friday night's Game 1 took care of that. But after a crushing 105-87 loss in Sunday's Game 2—the series is the best of five—the fans are again wondering why a team that carries such a sweet tune during the regular season suddenly hits all the wrong notes in the playoffs. Predictable. Inflexible. Too dependent upon the talents of two players, power forward Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton. Those were the flaws exposed during the crushing loss to Golden State last season, and, one year later, they are still evident.
Utah did prove one thing in Game 1: It knows how to exploit divine intervention. Phoenix point guard Kevin Johnson played only nine minutes (zero points, five assists) because of a flulike infection—viral enteritis, if you're scoring—and the Suns simply do not shine without KJ. Johnson's limited playing time required that a very large asterisk be placed next to the Utah win, and, obviously, it deserved to stay after a rejuvenated KJ (22 points, seven assists) led the Suns rout in Game 2.
"Having Kevin back made John [Stockton] play harder on defense, which affected his offense at the other end," said Phoenix's Tom Chambers. Chambers's analysis was sharper than his play (he scored only 31 points on 7-of-28 shooting in Games 1 and 2), because Stockton was indeed visibly worn out from chasing Johnson around picks, and Stockton finished with just 12 points and eight assists.
If the Jazz should lose Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday and Friday—and Utah hasn't won in the Suns' Veterans Memorial Coliseum since March 7, 1986—many of the positive things accomplished during this club-record 55-victory season would be all but forgotten. That is exactly what happened a year ago after the Golden State "debacle," as Utah guard Bob Hansen terms it. "I've heard about that series all season," says Utah coach Jerry Sloan. "And I'll hear about it the rest of my life."
There were cries to break up the team at the end of last season, but eventually the Jazz management decided to make only slight changes. No surprise there, for Utah is a stay-the-course kind of franchise. Consider that only one of its 12 roster players, backup center Mike Brown, has even played for another team; everyone else is a Jazz draftee except for forward Raymond Brown, who was signed this season as a rookie free agent.
One change was the insertion of 6'11" Thurl Bailey into the starting lineup at small forward on Feb. 16. During his seven seasons in Utah, Bailey has come off the bench for Kelly Tripucka, Marc Iavaroni, Josè Ortiz, Mike Brown and, for the first part of this season, rookie Blue Edwards. Bailey is the third most important player on this team, behind you-know-who and you-know-who, and it was clearly time to start him.
A related change has been the addition of Edwards, who gives Utah something it didn't have before—a swingman off the bench, an interchangeable part, someone to help out, as Stockton says, "when things get missymatchy." Utah is fortunate that director of player personnel Scotty Layden kept his mind open on the subject of Edwards, because when Layden first saw him, at a predraft camp in Portsmouth, Va., last year, he wrote "Can't play" next to his name. Edwards was reevaluated at a camp in Chicago, and the Jazz liked him well enough to make him the 21st pick of the '89 draft.
But let's get real here—Utah is still nine parts Malone-Stockton to one part everybody else; no team in the league relies so much upon two players. They are truly something special, a classic inside-outside, big man-little man tandem, the like of which the NBA has rarely seen. On the fast break, Stockton has an uncanny sense of when and where to deliver the ball to the hard-charging Malone—never too late, never too early. In the half-court offense, Stockton's entry passes to a posted-up Malone are almost always perfectly timed, too, coming after Malone has established his position, or, as Stockton says, when Malone is "locked in."
"With those two guys it's kind of like the old Green Bay Packer sweep," says Sloan. "You know it's coming, but the trick is to stop it." Few teams did during the regular season. Malone finished as the NBA's second highest scorer, with 31 points per game (behind Michael Jordan's 33.6), while Stockton led the league in assists for the third year in a row, with 14.5 per game, a full three per game better than Magic Johnson.
Utah had a remarkably injury-free season—its top eight players missed a total of only five games—but still seemed to tire near the finish line, losing eight of its last 13 to slide into second place (behind San Antonio) in the Midwest Division. The Suns, on the other hand, lost significant players (starting guards Johnson and the vastly underrated Jeff Hornacek, as well as top benchmen Eddie Johnson and Dan Majerle) for significant amounts of time (50 missed games among that foursome). But the team hung together and won 54 games, good for only third place in the rugged Pacific Division. The Suns came into the playoffs as the winningest team not to have earned the home-court advantage in the first round since the current playoff system was instituted in 1984. Nevertheless, considering Phoenix's triumph over adversity and Utah's failure in 1989, most observers favored the Suns.
But only, of course, with a healthy Johnson, who didn't play in Utah's lone win over Phoenix in the regular season. Utah had already demonstrated that it has no clue as to how to guard KJ—he scored 100 points against Utah in the three games in which he played during the season, shooting 52 free throws (and making 50). His creativity on the pick-and-roll he runs with Chambers is the half-court counterpoint to the Stockton-to-Malone power offense employed by Utah.
Johnson started to feel rocky on Wednesday of last week, but the symptoms—stomach cramps, chills, diarrhea, lack of energy—really kicked in on Friday morning, hours before Game 1. He insisted on giving it a try but looked wobbly, and at coach Cotton Fitzsimmons's insistence, he came out early in the second quarter and didn't return. Without KJ, Phoenix was susceptible to the aggressive half-court trapping defense that Utah used to pull away in the second period. It's exactly the kind of defense that KJ is able to shred with his quickness, and exactly the kind of defense that Sloan doesn't normally like to use.
"You know our mind-set," said Hansen after the game. "We want to play that tough, belly-up, Jerry Sloan, man-to-man. Anything else is considered a weakness, a gimmick. But, tonight, the gimmick helped us."
Johnson's participation in Game 2 looked unlikely when he missed Saturday's practice and spent three hours at Lakeview Hospital in Bountiful, a suburb of Salt Lake City. The idea was to pump intravenous fluids into his system—he received three liters—but he still felt terrible when he left the hospital. "At that point I wouldn't have given 10 cents for his chances of playing," said Dr. Paul Steingard, Phoenix's team physician. On the ride back from the hospital, Steingard instructed the cab driver to find a restaurant that served homemade chicken soup. They finally had to settle for a bowl of lemon-chicken soup at a Greek restaurant in Salt Lake City. "Greek penicillin," Steingard called it. Johnson woke up on Sunday feeling considerably better and even participated in the Suns' morning shootaround. By game time he said he felt "nearly 100 percent," but his stamina was the big question.
Through the first three quarters Fitzsimmons wisely bought Johnson a few minutes of rest here and there—whenever Stockton took a breather, KJ would follow, and whenever Stockton checked back in, KJ would do the same—and Johnson looked fresh for all of his team-high 39 minutes. One could weigh the relative merits of Johnson and Stockton for hours and not decide who is the better point guard. But it's clear that Johnson is much quicker and much more the beneficiary of a Phoenix offense that looks to spring him on picks, while Stockton's job is to send the ball in to Malone and think about his own shot only secondarily. Stockton has a much tougher task guarding Johnson than vice versa.
Having All-Star point guards isn't the only similarity between these two teams. Both have slashing young swingmen off the bench, Edwards for the Jazz, Majerle for the Suns. The difference is that while Edwards looks as if he'll be a fine player one day, Majerle already is. In temperament and playing style, Majerle resembles nothing so much as a football "roverback" or "monster," a guy who's always looking to stick his jaw into the middle of the action. He had 23 points in Game 1, 14 in Game 2.
Both teams also have defensive-oriented pivotmen, Mark Eaton for Utah, Mark West for Phoenix. Again, advantage to the Suns. While West found enough seams around the basket in Game 2 to score 14 points (to go with 21 rebounds), the 7'4" Eaton was reduced to almost total ineffectiveness, as he has been so often this season. He had four points, three rebounds and three blocked shots in Game 1, and two points, six rebounds and three blocks in Game 2. More and more, last season's Defensive Player of the Year is taking on a lighthouse aspect—conspicuous but often irrelevant. Teams are negating his shot-blocking and rebounding abilities by pulling him away from the basket, a trend that Golden State began in last year's playoffs.
Phoenix even got more or less of a wash in the battle of the big-scoring, trash-talking forwards. Chambers was awful, but Malone (15 of 41 for 41 points in the two games) wasn't much better. Everywhere the Mailman went, he was set upon by the mad neighborhood dogs of the Phoenix defense. There was veteran tough guy Kurt Rambis with an elbow in Malone's back. There was the unsmiling 6'10" Chambers ready to double-team. There was the menacing West, a 6'10" leaper, to help out when Malone did find an opening. There was the young, energetic Majerle coming over from heaven knows where. Even KJ, the choirboy-assassin, came down to get in a few licks on Malone.
"It was just kind of a swarming thing," said Malone after the game. "I'm not Superman. I can't beat everybody. Frustrated? I guess you could say that. I guess that's how I felt by the fourth quarter.
"Look, I'm ready to step up and take the blame if people want to give it to me. I'm averaging 20 points in the playoffs, and I averaged 30 during the season, so I guess it's got to be me, right?"
Malone seemed exhausted and irritated, neither of which was surprising. The specter of another postseason failure—the big playoff ka-BOOM—hung over the Jazz locker room like a shroud on Sunday night.
When teams have time to study the Jazz, as they do in the postseason, Utah seems to shrink in stature. The minor alterations Utah made—Bailey as a starter, Edwards as a contributor—just don't seem important enough. Bailey's 16 and 15 points against Phoenix were quiet ones; he is Mr. Reliable but rarely Mr. Spark. Edwards played well in Game 1 but scored only three points in Game 2. And Utah's shooting guards, Hansen and Darrell Griffith, didn't match Hornacek, who made 15 of his 24 shots from the field in Games 1 and 2. Wear down Stockton and beat on Malone, it seems, and you've got Utah's number.
The Mailman sat at his locker studying the stat sheet for a long time. "What do you see?" he was asked finally. He crumpled the paper and tossed it away.
"I see our asses in a sling," said Malone.