The Utah Jazz and the San Antonio Spurs are just about the
nicest bunch of guys you could ever hope to meet. David
Robinson, San Antonio's All-Star center, is a human Book of
Virtues. Most of the other Spurs--particularly Avery Johnson,
the point guard who doubles as the team's fire-and-brimstone
preacher, and the soft-spoken Sean Elliott and Vinny Del
Negro--are the kind of courteous, considerate fellows you would
pick to be your daughter's prom date. The San Antonio players
are such a harmonious bunch that the only scuffle likely to take
place in their locker room is over who will lead the pregame
Utah is perhaps the only NBA team that doesn't look like the
Hell's Angels when compared with San Antonio, which it routed
101-86 on Sunday to take a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven
Western Conference semifinal series. After Game 3 last Saturday,
Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek shockingly (but gently, of course) cut
an interview short--because he didn't want to be late for church.
Star forward Karl Malone kept reporters waiting after Game 4,
but who could complain when the Utah owner himself, auto
dealership mogul Larry Miller, apologized for Malone's
tardiness. "I checked with Karl, and he will be out in two
minutes," Miller informed the assembled media. "Sorry to keep
you waiting." Despite coach Jerry Sloan's no-nonsense approach,
point guard John Stockton's hard-nosed style and Malone's
bulging biceps, the Jazz is not terribly intimidating.
But the NBA playoffs should never be confused with polite
society, and however admirable the character traits of the Jazz
and the Spurs may be, the teams' even-tempered natures have been
cited as the reason they have a history of postseason
disappointment: Neither franchise, despite often imposing
regular-season records, has ever reached the NBA Finals. So it
was obvious heading into this series that the winner would be
the team that, gosh darn it (excuse our language), played with
some malice. At the close of business on Sunday, that team was
the Jazz, which hounded Robinson into his two worst playoff
performances since, well ... his embarrassments last season at
the hands of Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon in the
Robinson, the league's fifth-leading scorer, at 25.0 points per
game, during the regular season, had consecutive 11-point
performances over the weekend, including a nightmarish Game 4 in
which he took only three shots in 24 minutes before fouling out.
The Jazz was poised to close out the Spurs (Game 5 was scheduled
for Tuesday) because Utah was, as the words on forward Chris
Morris's cap aptly put it, MO NASTY.
The Spurs' lost weekend lent credence to the theory that
they--Robinson, in particular--are too soft to win an NBA
championship. San Antonio coach Bob Hill usually bristles at
that charge, but even he had to admit that the Spurs played Game
3, a 105-75 win for the Jazz, as if they had been coached by
Miss Manners. "The embarrassing part for me is they told us in
the papers what they were going to do to us, and then they did
it," Hill said, referring to Utah players who were quoted in
Salt Lake City papers as saying they planned to be more
aggressive after going to the foul line only 15 times in the
first two games. "I told our guys that they were saying publicly
they were going to take it to us, and still we didn't respond.
This isn't about defending the pick-and-rolls or about X's and
O's anymore. This is about whether we're willing to fight a
little bit, to get ourselves dirty a little bit."
One Jazz player even did some uncharacteristic trash talking
after Sunday's game. Reserve forward Bryon Russell was asked how
Utah would respond if it failed to finish the series in Game 5.
"If?" said Russell. "If if was a fifth, we'd all be drunk. They
will not win three straight. You can write that down and take it
to the bank."
But the other Utah players were more cautious, maybe because
they remember leading Houston 2-1 in a best-of-five series last
year before losing the last two games. "Every game against David
is tougher than the one before," Malone said on Sunday. "He's a
great player, no matter what happens in this series."
Through the first four games, however, Robinson did not perform
like a great player. He was awkward at times against the Jazz
double teams and passive in other instances. "We're playing him
by committee," Utah power forward Antoine Carr said after Game
4, and the chairman of the committee was the 6'9", 256-pound
Malone, who is four inches shorter but six pounds heavier than
Robinson. Malone used his strength to keep the Admiral from
getting too close to the basket and repeatedly slapped the ball
away when Robinson made his move. "I just try to frustrate him a
little bit, make him work for everything he gets," Malone said.
The strategy clearly worked, because the normally unflappable
Robinson appeared disconcerted on the court--he foolishly
reached in on Howard Eisley and picked up his fifth foul in the
third quarter on Sunday--and off it, where he seemed irritated
at the suggestion that the difference in the series was that
Malone had outplayed him. "The notion that Karl or I can win or
lose this series by himself is baloney," he said. "It's
frustrating that I haven't performed as well as I want to, but
it takes an entire team to be successful, and so far we haven't
played well as a team. One player doesn't do it alone."
But sometimes one player, one star player, has to set a tone for
his team, and that is something Robinson had not done often
enough in the first four games. San Antonio needed a kick in the
pants, something inspirational in word or deed, especially last
weekend. Spurs reserve forward Chuck Person got himself ejected
last Saturday in an attempt to stir his team. Robinson,
likewise, could have tried to jump-start San Antonio by applying
a hard foul to any of the Utah players who went fearlessly to
the basket. In Game 3 forward Adam Keefe, one of several Jazz
reserves who played major roles during the series, grabbed an
offensive rebound and went right back up to score over Robinson,
who leaned away. Some players--Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing or
Alonzo Mourning, to cite just a few--would have clobbered Keefe.
Other Spurs were similarly thrown off their games. Stockton got
the better of Johnson, particularly in Game 1, when he had 13
points and 19 assists to Johnson's six and five. Stockton so
discombobulated Johnson, a New Orleans native, that Johnson said
after Game 2 that he was "going to have to get Mama to cook me
up some gumbo and send it to me to get me back on the right
Johnson should order an extra helping for Elliott, the Spurs'
All-Star small forward. Elliott is one of the best in the league
at slashing to the basket from the wing, but the Jazz put a
second defender on him and bottled him up before he could make
his move. Utah also limited the scoring potential of Elliott,
one of the league's best open-court players, by virtually
eliminating the San Antonio running game. The Spurs didn't have
more than 13 fast-break points in any of the first four games.
"There's really no way that I can score more the way they're
playing me," Elliott said after Game 2. "If someone has a secret
formula for how I can get to the basket, I'm willing to take it.
But every time I touch the ball, I'm getting Stockton coming at
me like a bullet or somebody else coming to double. The only
thing I can do is move the ball to the open man."
One of the Spurs' chief tormentors was Morris, who came alive
offensively in Game 4, when he scored 25 points on 11-of-14
shooting. It was something of a revival for Morris, who played
few meaningful minutes in Utah's first-round series against the
Portland Trail Blazers. But sitting on the bench in Utah is
preferable to playing for the New Jersey Nets, with whom Morris
spent seven years before signing with the Jazz as a free agent
before this season.
"There's no arguing, no animosity here," says Morris, who
created his fair share of turmoil on the Nets. "People actually
pat each other on the back here." Morris, who is best known for
refusing former New Jersey coach Butch Beard's order to tie his
shoelaces during a shootaround last season, isn't having the
same troubles with authority in Utah. "Jerry gets on my butt all
the time, but that's good," he says. "I know he's trying to get
something out of me."
Morris is one of the big differences in a Utah team that hasn't
tended to change much from year to year. "We're deeper and more
explosive than we have been in the past," Keefe says. "We didn't
use to have a guy like Chris who could come off the bench and go
for 25 or 30 points on a given night. Karl and John have more
help this year."
What is usually left unsaid in the Jazz locker room is that
Stockton, 34, and Malone, 32, are running out of opportunities
to cap their remarkable careers with an NBA championship, but
that is the obvious subtext underlying the "Now is the time"
slogan that has taken hold in Utah this season. "Maybe I'd be
worried about that if I thought this was our last chance,"
Malone said on Sunday. "But John and I have some years left.
We're going to try our best to get it this year, just as we
always do, but if we don't get it, we'll be back taking another
run next season."
At week's end this season still held a great deal of promise,
and if the ever-polite Jazz can remember that there is no need
to say excuse me when reaching for a championship, who knows?
Now just might be the time.