The Portland Trail Blazers opened the 1990-91 season with a 19-1 start. They ended it by going 16-1. In between they looked mortal for, oh, maybe a week, but still won often enough to assure themselves the NBA's best regular-season record: 63-19. So it was that, after several hours of studying videotape of the Blazers early last week, the Utah Jazz film crew—assistant coach Gordon Chiesa and player personnel director Scott Layden, among others—grew tired of the horror genre. They decided to take in something entirely different in Portland before the start of their Western Conference semifinal series and made the short walk to a cinematheque near their hotel. "Very avant-garde," said Chiesa later. "People who look like they're from Greenwich Village. Lots of movies with subtitles. We saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Tuesday night, so were we."
Indeed, Portland interred Utah 117-97 in Game 1, and the Jazz wasn't resurrected until two days later, during the fourth quarter of Game 2—too late, inasmuch as the reawakening occurred only after Utah had stumbled to a 23-point deficit. The Jazz wound up losing 118-116. Utah rebounded, figuratively and literally, in Game 3, getting a huge effort (30 points, 21 rebounds) from its huge star, forward Karl Malone, to hold serve in Salt Lake City on Saturday 107-101. But the victory meant little because the Jazz couldn't duplicate the feat the next night, when Utah lost 104-101 and fell behind in the series three games to one. Thus the Jazz returned to Portland for Tuesday's Game 5 facing possible elimination.
The images of Game 4 will never make it to that artsy Portland movie house, because the game had a Hollywood finish, and if you threw a cape on one of its stars, Portland guard Clyde Drexler, with his widow's peak and Snidley smile, he could play the lead in a Bela Lugosi movie. Drexler had 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists on Sunday, and he utterly controlled the final frenetic minute of play.
"It seemed like there were 90 lead changes out there," Drexler said. In fact, from the time guard Jeff Malone, Utah's invaluable newcomer this season, gave the Jazz its first lead of the evening (85-84) by dropping a short fallaway with 6:56 to play until Drexler put Portland ahead for good (102-101) with a 20-footer with :36 on the clock, the two teams swapped the lead an astonishing 18 times. The Blazers would strike, usually with Drexler or their elephantine center, Kevin Duckworth (30 points, 11 rebounds). Utah would reply, usually with the larger of the two Malones. The score went back and forth, never tied. Karl Malone had just sunk a turnaround to give the Jazz a 101-100 lead with 43 seconds to play when Portland huddled up for the final time.
May 19, 1991
Coach Rick Adelman told his Blazers to look for a relatively quick shot in the hope that if it failed, Utah wouldn't be in a position to try to run out the clock. An opportunity materialized early in the possession for Drexler as he emerged from behind a mammoth Duckworth screen. The Glide hadn't hunted his shot much all night, for he suffered from turf toe, the result of a tumble he had taken during Game 2. "With turf toe," he said, "you don't always have your balance."
But here, as Drexler squared up to the basket, his feet were solidly beneath him. He added his trademark leg kick, and the ball stayed true.
The basket might just as easily have been merely another tilt of the seesaw—the prelude to a 19th lead change—so Drexler himself made sure his jumper would stand up. Moments later, at the other end of the court, when Jazz forward Thurl Bailey cut to the basket, the Mailman attempted a delivery from his station outside the key. "The pass was a little too late and a little too slow," said Drexler, who stepped smartly in front of Bailey and snared the ball.
So much for the allegation that Portland is purely an open-court team, one that loses its way when the gears grind, as they so often do in the postseason. "We've been great in the half court in the last few minutes of games when we've had to score," says veteran guard Danny Ainge. "It seems that when it's a tight game, we execute really well."
On Sunday, when the game was tight enough to cause a rash, the Blazers executed perfectly.