With his mouth agape and his arms crossed over his chest, Portland coach Rick Adelman stood in front of the Trail Blazer bench on Sunday glaring at referee Joey Crawford. The Utah Jazz led 116-110 at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City with 1:30 left to play. Portland guard Clyde Drexler had just complained his way into a second technical foul—and an automatic banishment—just when his team needed him most. Now, Crawford, who had called both T's, wanted to know if Adelman planned to insert a replacement for Drexler. "No," answered Adelman. "Why should we?"
Ultimately, Portland lost not only its cool but also the game and a splendid opportunity to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the NBA Western Conference finals. Failure to keep their wits about them was nothing new for the oft petulant Blazers, who frequently behave as if the referees have forced them to play five-on-eight. In Sunday's 121-112 defeat, Portland was buried by five technicals and two Malones: Jazz guard Jeff and forward Karl combined for 61 points as Utah tied the series at two games apiece.
Afterward, Adelman attempted to deflect any criticism of his team's behavior. "Utah had more to do with beating us than the officials [did]," he said. Jeff Malone was not so sure, saying, "[The Blazers] came unglued at the end."
Though Portland and Utah possess contrasting styles and temperaments, there were some striking similarities. They were not only the conference's two division winners, but they also represented two smallish NBA outposts; in each city the locals are fiercely protective of their team, the only big league outfit in town. Indeed, Blazermania of the most defensive sort erupted early last week when Today show host Bryant Gumbel made an offhand remark deriding Portland as "cry Blazers." That prompted a slew of faxes to the network in New York from enraged Portland fans, who were also encouraged by local deejays to send handkerchiefs and onions to Gumbel.
The Blazers themselves did some packing of their own—of the Jazz back to Salt Lake City—by winning Games 1 and 2 in Portland by the blowout scores of 113-88 and 119-102, respectively. The two games were a showcase for the many gifts of Blazer Terry Porter, who normally plays in Drexler's shadow. Porter gave new meaning to the term point guard: After racking up 26 points in the series opener, he ascended to near unconsciousness in Game 2 by making 8 of 9 two-point field goal attempts, 4 of 5 three-point tries and 13 of 14 free throws en route to a career-high 41 points. His deadeye shooting was unblinking and often unseeing, coming as it did with the hand of Utah's John Stockton frequently in his mug.
The 29-year-old Porter, a seven-year pro, has had to make huge adjustments this season, both off and on the court. In October, his father, Herman, died suddenly of a heart attack, 18 months after Terry's mother, Louise, had passed away alter a stroke. "I really didn't come to grips with it until late in the season," Porter said. Meanwhile, Porter's life on the court was changing. Adelman began running large chunks of the Portland offense through shooting guard Drexler in the low post, rather than having Porter orchestrate things from the outside.
It's an adjustment few playmakers could make, let alone want to make, because it threatens their most precious statistic: assists. Accordingly, Porter's assist average dipped from 8.0 last year to 5.8 this season. But by playoff time Porter was comfortable with the changes, and the man guarding him for the Jazz, Stockton, found himself busier than an NBC fax machine, pinballing through screens in pursuit of Porter rather than drifting through the passing lanes and pocketing steals. In the series' first two games. Stockton, who led the NBA in thefts in the regular season, didn't get even one.
For Games 3 and 4 in Salt Lake City, the Jazz found hope in its new tabernacle for basketball, the Delta Center, and in its formidable forward, 6'9", 255-pound Karl Malone. Utah lost only four games at home this season. On the road, it was 18-23. "It's one of the great mysteries of the world," says Jazz center Mark Eaton. "If we figure it out, we'll be dangerous."
One theory, advanced by Blazer power forward Buck Williams, is that Utah's predictable offense can be disrupted more easily in a hostile building where referees are less hospitable to visitors. The Mailman, on the other hand, says the Jazz's energy just seems to drop off as it moves closer to sea level. Whatever, in Portland, Malone totaled 36 points. In Utah's 97-89 win in Game 3, he delivered 39 points; he added 33 in Game 4.
The Jazz also played at a slower tempo in Salt Lake City, limiting Portland to a total of 159 shots in the games there and making a defensive factor of Eaton (six blocks), who had been honored by the best offering of the sign-filled series: WHITE MEN DON'T NEED TO JUMP. And Stockton, playing with a self-described "careful aggressiveness," harassed the suddenly mortal Porter into shooting 12 of 29 in Games 3 and 4. Said Porter, "We're going to be exchanging each other's jerseys if we get any closer."
While Porter shook Stockton for 34 points on Sunday, the emotional Blazers came unraveled in the clutch. Drexler, though, was philosophical. "Every team contests calls," he said in the locker room afterward. "You show me a team that doesn't, and I'll eat my shoes."
But the Jazz more scrupulously kept their feet from their mouths. In particular, the Mailman, who is perennially among the league leaders in technicals, largely refrained from moaning about the calls. "I'm just working to keep my composure out there."
To advance to the NBA Finals, though, Utah knew it would soon have to come up with some kind of outburst in Portland, where it has lost four times this season, by an average of 19.3 points. "They haven't proven they can beat us in our place," said Porter on Sunday as the teams prepared to return to Portland for Game 5 on Tuesday. "We came close here." If the Jazz do pull a road upset, then there will really be a lot to cry about in Portland.