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How The West Will Be Won

May 28, 2007
May 28, 2007

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May 28, 2007

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How The West Will Be Won

Even with a latter-day Stockton and Malone and the same coach who guided the originals, the Cinderella Jazz will be hard-pressed to stop a Spurs team gunning for its fourth title since 1999

No, The Utah Jazzhas not disbanded since John Stockton and Karl Malone took their short shortsand their pick-and-roll precision into retirement. Quite the contrary. The Jazzhas reached the Western Conference finals, its furthest incursion into thepostseason since 1998, when S&M lost to Michael Jordan and the ChicagoBulls in the Finals.

Utah is still coached by that ultimate NBA old-schooler, Jerry Sloan, whocollects tractors ("I haven't really counted, but around 65 soundsright," he says) and is still eminently capable of peppering his team withf bombs, as he did at halftime of Sunday's Game 1, which ended in a 108--100loss to the San Antonio Spurs. It has a couple of lunch-pail veterans in theSloan-Stockton-Malone tradition: Guard Derek Fisher, the owner of threechampionship rings from his days with the Los Angeles Lakers, and forward MattHarpring, the owner of countless battle scars from a combative career with fourteams. And it once again has a hard-nosed, steely-eyed quarterback in DeronWilliams, a kind of 21st-century Stockton--only with lots of skin ink.

This is an article from the May 28, 2007 issue

Williams scored 34points and had only one turnover in Game 1 against a defense that hadfrustrated Phoenix Suns All-Star point guard Steve Nash in the previousseries.

The immediateproblem for the Jazz, however, is that the Spurs are a version of their oldselves, too, and that version won a championship just two years ago, and twoyears before that, and four years before that. Having emerged from a classicsix-gamer against Phoenix, San Antonio has clearly become the favorite (if itwasn't already) in a final four long on pedigree--the West's Spurs and theEast's Detroit Pistons each have three championships--but short on star power.In recent weeks Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki andSteve Nash have been shown the postseason door. Sure, Cleveland's LeBron Jameslives on in the East (page 43), but in the West we will discover if the viewingpublic can invest in a duel between the relentlessly efficient Spurs ("aslow, positional team," as Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko says) and theCinderellas from Utah, who were supposed to be eliminated by now, first by theHouston Rockets and then by the Golden State Warriors.

Plus, it's hardnot to pine for more of San Antonio--Phoenix, one of the best playoff series inrecent memory, one that featured, besides lots of great basketball, aKafkaesque decision by the NBA that both mistreated the Suns and tainted theSpurs' victory.

Phoenix hadwrapped up a Game 4 win and a 2--2 series tie in San Antonio when Spurs forwardRobert Horry hip-checked Nash into the scorer's table with 18 seconds left inthe game. Two of Nash's teammates, center Amaré Stoudemire and forward BorisDiaw, rose from the bench in protest, an eminently human reaction consideringthat their leader had been treated like a pi√±ata (bloodied nose in Game 1, kneeto the crotch by Bruce Bowen in Game 2) to that point. Stoudemire advancedabout 20 feet toward the action before being restrained, Diaw maybe 15 feetbefore turning around himself. An NBA rule against "leaving the vicinity ofthe bench area" during an altercation resulted in both players beingsuspended for Game 5. So the net result of a flagrant act by one team (Horrywas suspended for two games) was that the other team paid the price.

Stu Jackson, theNBA's rules czar, was asked if that was fair. "It's not aboutfairness," answered Jackson, "it's about correctness." Theabsurdity of that statement boggles the mind, as does commissioner DavidStern's churlish defense of the decision on a national radio show. "Tolisten to the palaver that Robert Horry changed the series is just silly,"Stern told ESPN's Dan Patrick. Well, a lot of Spurs fans who don't know whatpalaver means were among those giving Horry a 30-second standing ovation whenhe checked into Game 1 on Sunday, his first appearance since the hip check;apparently, they thought he changed the series.

Anyway, withouttheir top scorer (Stoudemire, a first-team All-NBA pick) and their No. 2playmaker (Diaw), behind Nash, the Suns dropped Game 5 at home, 88--85, andwent into San Antonio for Game 6 at a severe psychological disadvantage.Phoenix eventually succumbed 114--106, leaving the Suns with a 6--15 recordagainst the Spurs since Nash arrived three years ago, not to mention anoff-season full of question marks.

While Phoenix'sBig Three can be defined by flaws (Nash gets worn down, forward Shawn Marion isinconsistent, Stoudemire is a sieve on defense), San Antonio's Big Three isdefined by a seeming imperviousness to pressure. Forward Tim Duncan averaged26.8 points and 13.7 rebounds in the series and played remarkable help defense,point guard Tony Parker consistently drilled open jumpers when the Suns doubleddown on Duncan, and shooting guard Manu Ginóbili scored 26 and 33 points in thefinal two games.

"Nothing anyof them did surprised us," said Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni, "but whenall three are doing the right things at the same time, you're in bigtrouble."

The Jazz foundthat out in Game 1 when the Spurs' Big Three made 26 of 44 shots and combinedfor 71 points. Duncan, in particular, has been so routinely excellent in thepostseason that were awards voting taking place now, he most likely would winboth MVP (he finished fourth) and Defensive Player of the Year (he finishedsecond).

One thing to keepan eye on as the series with Utah progresses (Game 2 was scheduled for Tuesdayin San Antonio) is Duncan's mastery of a rather obscure statisticalcategory--ratio of blocked shots to personal fouls, the big man's equivalent ofthe assists-to-turnovers ratio used to evaluate point guards. Duncan had fivefouls and only two blocks against the Jazz on Sunday, but in the Phoenix serieshe finished with 25 blocks and only 21 personal fouls, an astoundingplus-minus. In the decisive Game 6 win he blocked nine shots and committed onlythree fouls. The Suns are not shy about complaining to the refs, but even theyconceded that Duncan has the ability to block or alter shots while keeping hisbody and hands off his man. "Tim has a great knowledge of spatialrelationships" is the way Spurs coach Gregg Popovich explains it.

Duncan is true tohis team's philosophy of staying away from fouling. "There's a simple waywe get the point across," says assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo. "We yelland scream like hell when somebody does foul."

Ask Duncan about"spatial relationships" and you'll get that blank stare that he offersin response to most basketball-related questions. About the only time Duncanwill elaborate on anything is on the "Ask Tim" segment that runs on aSan Antonio television station from time to time. Host Don Harris takes e-mailquestions from viewers as long as they have nothing to do with basketball.Duncan has discussed the Chicago Bears (his favorite NFL team), poker (hisfavorite card game), the Iceman (his favorite Ultimate Fighter), the '68 Camaro(his favorite restored car) and his preference for big-block Chevys oversmall-block Chevys. "Small blocks are probably better," said Duncan,"but I'm a big-block guy." He wasn't talking about defense.

That last subjectmight pique the interest of Sloan, who can't seem to stop buying tractors, newand ancient. He stores them on his farm in McLeansboro, Ill. "I just piddlearound with 'em whenever I can," says Sloan, who can usually be foundwearing a John Deere cap away from the court. "I should take better care ofthem, but I know they're there."

The old master,who has coached Utah since 1988 and is the longest tenured coach in NBAhistory, has by and large taken good care of this team, though it hasn't alwaysbeen easy getting the Jazz to follow his lead. After Game 1 he talked bluntlyabout his players' not accepting responsibility for mistakes and playingscared, subjects he had addressed even more directly behind closed doors athalftime, which ended with Utah trailing 54--36. "If you are intimidatedand don't want to go out there and compete," Sloan told his players,"then stay in the locker room."

Fisher, Harpringand Williams notwithstanding, there is a softer, international sensibility tothis team, owing to starters Mehmet Okur (Turkey) and Kirilenko (Russia) andbackup swingman Gordan Giricek (Croatia). Even the Jazz's interior stud withthe bruising name, power forward Carlos Boozer, is a finesse player, gentlylaying in righty and lefty soft serves around the basket, though he did toolittle of that in Game 1 (20 points, but only four in the first half) against aSpurs defense that, as Duncan put it, made Boozer take shots "outside hisarsenal."

There have evenbeen tears: Witness Kirilenko's salty breakdown the day after Game 1 of Utah'sfirst-round series against the Rockets over his frustration at playing only 16minutes in an 84--75 loss. It's pretty clear that Sloan thinks there's nocrying in basketball. "I have to try to play somebody who can keep us inthe ball game" was his answer to Kirilenko.

But there aresigns that the Jazz, while not nearly as good as the '98 Finals team, will notgo quietly in this series. Utah put up 38 points in the fourth quarter onSunday, a jaw-dropping total against a club that allowed the fewest points inthe league. Then, too, the Jazz lost the first two games of its series againstHouston and came back to win, and it eliminated the Warriors in a Game 6 on theroad.

It is a resilientteam, rather a poor man's version of the Spurs. Both are coached by veterandefensive specialists who demand precision on offense. (As for significantdifferences, Popovich is an oenophile and Sloan is a ... tractor-phile?) Bothhave one strong back-to-the-basket presence (Duncan and Boozer). Both haveversatile and unorthodox international players (Ginóbili and Kirilenko). Bothhave giant-sized perimeter shooters (6'10" Horry and 6'11" Okur). Bothhave combative, linebacker-type swingmen (Bowen and Harpring). And though bothteams are often classified as plodders, they can play at an up-tempo pace, withthe caveat that they can't screw up--if they do, both Popovich and Sloan willdemand that the brakes be applied.

But the Jazz don'thave a Big Three as good as San Antonio's or a Big One as good as Duncan, whohad 27 points on only 15 shots on Sunday. Third-year center Rafael Ara√∫jo did arespectable job of defending against Duncan in his nine minutes of action butafterward sounded as though he wanted Duncan to sign his yearbook. "To faceTim Duncan is a great experience," said Ara√∫jo, who is from Brazil. "Heis a great player and a great role model who I actually watched when I was incollege."

If Utah is to pullan upset, it will need continued confident point-guard play from Williams,better perimeter shooting from Okur (who made only three of his 15 shots onSunday), a smorgasbord of defensive approaches on role-model Duncan, an all-outassault on the glass (the Jazz did out-rebound San Antonio 48--33 in Game 1),and the belief that it is a team of destiny capable of repeating its triumphsof the early rounds. After all, as Kirilenko described Utah's early-roundsuccesses: "It wasn't like a plate of cheese--nobody gave it to us." Astrange metaphor that conjures up mice and big cats lying in wait. After Game1, it's clear which is which.

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San Antonio's Big Three is defined by its seemingIMPERVIOUSNESS TO PRESSURE.
PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonoughMUYCALIENTE
Ginóbili (20) has averaged 27.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists in hislast three games, including a 23-point, 10-assist performance in Game1.
PHOTOBOB ROSATOTHESECOND COMING
Williams is proving himself a worthy heir to Stockton as Utah's pointguard.
PHOTOBOB ROSATOINSIDEMAN
Boozer, the Jazz's only low-post threat, has been a beast in the playoffs, with12 double doubles in his first 14 games.
PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHJOB WELLDONE
Duncan's ability to block and change shots without fouling allows the Spurs tobe aggressive on the perimeter.