Work in Sports
SALT LAKE CITY (Ticker) -- The much-anticipated duel between Karl Malone and Gary Payton ended in a draw. But the Utah Jazz moved on to the Western Conference semifinals thanks to a 3-pointer that was inches short.
After rallying from a two games to none deficit, the Seattle SuperSonics fought tooth-and-nail with the Jazz in the decisive fifth game. But Chuck Person's potential tying 3-pointer hit the front of the rim and bounced out as time expired, preserving a 96-93 victory for Utah.
Billed as a showdown between two of the league's best players, the game was exactly that for better than three quarters. Payton and Malone engaged in a heated exchange at the end of Game Four and both promised they would bring something special for the other tonight.
"Everybody wanted to hype that up," Payton said. "We talked before the game. Everybody just put it out of proportion. Me and Karl are competitors."
Payton fed Ruben Patterson for a running jumper and buried a 3-pointer and a layup himself, pulling Seattle within 80-79 with 8:14 to play and matching Malone's point total with 23.
But John Stockton, who had 17 points and 16 assists, answered with a 16-footer as the Jazz managed to maintain their lead. Olden Polynice converted a three-point play and made a short hook shot in the lane after Malone sank a 17-footer to give Utah an apparently safe 92-85 advantage with 3:38 to play.
But just as they had the entire series, Payton and the Sonics surprised everyone with their relentlessness. The 6-4 point guard made a layup and found Rashard Lewis for a 12-footer that cut the deficit to 92-89 with 2:06 remaining.
"I admire that in people when everybody thinks the world is against them and they fought back," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said of the Sonics' resilience. "To me, that's one of the most important things you can do in sports is to show that kind of ability to be able to fight when everybody wants to take a foot and just step on your head. I really admire that in people when they fight back, and they certainly did."
Jeff Hornacek and Vin Baker traded baskets before Polynice, one of the worst free-throw shooters in NBA history, clanged one attempt and threw up an air ball on the next with 31 seconds left to leave the door open for Seattle.
"I was mad at myself because I've worked on it so long," said Polynice, who was a dismal 31 percent at the line this season. "I had the opportunity to pretty much seal it up and I didn't capitalize on it."
Payton took advantage with a driving layup, but Stockton made two free throws to set up the game's final sequence with nine seconds to go.
Person, inserted specifically for his long-range shooting, received a pass from Payton at the top of the arc, dribbled left and unleashed a high, arching shot that kissed the front of the rim and landed harmlessly in the arms of Utah center Greg Ostertag as time ran out on the Sonics' season.
"I got a clean look," Person said. "I got my knees down, got my shot up. Maybe I got it up a little bit too high, but I wanted to give it a chance and make sure I didn't short-arm it. It took a long time coming down, so I thought it was going in."
"It hurts just a little bit," Payton added. "But I think I'm more proud of the team and the way they played. With a young team like we've got, we came into a place that's really hard to win and had a chance to win."
Malone and Payton each finished with 27 points with Malone connecting on 13-of-24 shots in 44 minutes and Payton going 12-of-25 in 27 minutes. Malone grabbed eight rebounds and handed out three assists, while Payton finished with six and nine, respectively.
"I think we had a lot of guys step up," Malone said. "We had a lot of guys who did a lot of good things down the stretch. I think (Polynice), the last four or five minutes, did a lot of good things for us. That's the most important thing, everybody played hard and everybody contributed in the ball game. It was a nice win for us."
Bryon Russell scored 16 points and Polynice and Hornacek added 13 apiece for the Jazz, who improved to 5-2 in decisive fifth games since 1992. They will begin their conference semifinal series with Portland on Sunday.
The Trail Blazers eliminated the Jazz in six games last season.
"Portland is different than Seattle," Malone said. "They are a more physical team and they're gonna make you earn a lot of things."
Lewis scored 20 points and Patterson 15 for Seattle, which was bounced in the first round for the first time since 1995 and slipped to 2-2 all-time in playoff series against Utah.
Baker scored 17 points for the Sonics, who shot 44 percent (36-of-82) and yielded just nine points off turnovers.
"We're a great basketball team," he said. "I think we played hard. I don't know if the better team won the series. I think Utah's a helluva team. I think Karl Malone and John Stockton are great basketball players. But again, I don't think the best team won the series."
The Jazz connected on 51 percent (41-of-81) of their shots and held a 41-35 advantage on the boards.
Russell had the hot hand in the early going, making a 3-pointer and a driving dunk to give Utah a 14-8 lead with 4:17 left in the first quarter. He finished the first quarter with nine points, helping the Jazz to a 23-18 advantage before Payton and Malone took over.
Payton was just 2-of-8 for four points in the opening period, but forged a 33-33 tie with a 25-footer with 6:18 remaining in the first half. Malone answered with a seven-footer, but Payton drilled another 3-pointer on the ensuing trip to give Seattle a 36-35 lead.
Two short jumpers by Malone gave Utah a 42-38 lead with 3:54 remaining, but Payton responded with a 20-footer before coming back again with a layup and a 14-footer to build a 46-42 advantage with 2:29 left in the quarter.
Payton connected from 17 feet before Polynice's layup re-established a four-point lead. Stockton and Russell connected on consecutive 3-pointers as the sellout crowd at the Delta Center smelled blood. But Payton hit a 10-foot jumper in the lane at the buzzer and Seattle closed to 53-49 at halftime.
Hornacek got the 19,911 fans on their feet again when he opened the second half with a 19-footer, a runner and a 3-pointer that gave Utah a 60-49 cushion.
"I think that when we left here after Game Two, they were reeling a little bit," Stockton said of the Sonics. "I didn't quite know what it was that made them a good team and then they figured that out early in the third game and they were a very, very good team throughout the rest of the series. So we feel fortunate for the win."
Malone's 16-footer with 3:10 remaining in the third quarter gave the Jazz their biggest lead at 72-59. Lewis hit a 3-pointer with two seconds left, shaving the deficit to 79-70 entering the final period.
"I knew it was going to be tough game, an aggressive game, because in the playoffs everything is going to be aggressive," Lewis said.
Patterson made a driving layup and a running jumper before Payton's 3-pointer and layup set the stage for an exciting finish.