The Tangled Web
By ensnaring the Jazz in a masterfully spun defense, the Bulls
stunningly altered the course of the Finals
by Phil Taylor
Posted: Wed June 10, 1998
When they first offered to make Karl Malone a hero, he was
hesitant, because if there is one thing Malone has learned, it's
that heroes are not easily made. But then the illustrator sent
him artwork, and the writer sent him story lines, and Malone
finally approved of the concept for a comic-book superhero
called the Mailman, a futuristic (is there any other kind?)
crime fighter who would battle the robots and aliens threatening
the world. When the prospective creators of the Mailman met with
Malone in April, he had a couple of requests. Make that demands.
"I don't want to get shot, and I don't want to get scratched
up," Malone told them. "If you're a superhero, you're not
supposed to get killed or scratched or shot. You're supposed to
defy the odds."
Malone wishes those rules held true in real life, where at
week's end he was facing odds much longer than any his
comic-book counterpart will ever encounter. Single-handedly
saving mankind from an alien invasion is a minor undertaking
compared to wresting a championship from the Chicago Bulls. At
least that's the way it seemed on Sunday night after the Bulls
had administered a history-making, 96-54 thrashing to Malone's
Utah Jazz, giving Chicago a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven NBA
Finals. Utah's point total was the lowest in any NBA game since
the introduction of the shot clock in 1954, and the Jazz's
offensive futility was so mind-boggling that its coach, Jerry
Sloan, stopped in mid-sentence during his postgame press
conference when he glanced at the final statistics. "Was that
the score?" he said. "Was that really the final score?"
Malone hit his first six shots in Game 3 but
was shut down by swarming Bulls over the final three quarters.
Utah took some small comfort in the knowledge that it had two
more chances, on Wednesday in Game 4 and on Friday in Game 5, to
get the one victory that would send the series back to Salt Lake
City, but there was no escaping the feeling that Chicago had not
just beaten the Jazz but also had solved the Jazz. The Bulls'
defenders attacked so ferociously that Utah couldn't run its
intricately patterned offense. Chicago forced the Jazz out of
its plays and into one-on-one basketball, which is a little like
making the Royal Philharmonic improvise its way through Good
Golly Miss Molly. "I think we have a good feel for their
offense," Michael Jordan said after Game 3. There are no more
ominous words for a Bulls opponent. They are usually Jordan's
kiss of death, his way of saying, We have located this team's
heart and are capable of removing it whenever we choose.
Chicago gummed up Utah's offense by having
Harper and Pippin double-team the Jazz's short point guards.
After the first two games of the series, the heart most in
question was Malone's. The Mailman comic book calls for Malone
to be revived after years of being frozen in Arctic ice, which
might have explained his frigid touch in the early going against
Chicago. He struggled through two horrid performances, making 9
of 25 shots in Game 1, and 5 of 16 in Game 2, and even though
Utah split the games, it was obvious that the Bulls would make
short work of the Jazz unless Malone returned to the form that
has made him an 11-time All-Star and the 1996-97 league MVP. "If
I don't play better," he said after Utah's 93-88 loss in Game 2,
"we don't win this series."
The rest of the Jazz players knew that as well, which is why
they took pains to make sure Malone didn't dwell on his shooting
problems. The night before Game 3, Stockton, Adam Keefe and
guard Jeff Hornacek had dinner with Malone in Chicago, where
they engaged in their usual good-natured exchange of insults.
The Mailman's shooting was one of the featured topics. "We got a
smile out of him," said Hornacek, "but I don't know if I'd say
he actually laughed."
If Malone was a bit grim, it was understandable. He doesn't seem
to hunger for the hero's role so much as he wants to avoid
disappointing his fans and teammates. Everywhere he turns in
Utah he's reminded of how badly the entire state wants a
championship. Every time he drives home, he sees a sign posted
in front of his neighbor's house bearing the numbers from 15 to
one, representing the 15 wins the Jazz needed at the start of
the playoffs to become champions for the first time in its
history. With each victory, another number is crossed out.
"Sometimes all the support can almost turn into a negative, if
you try so hard not to disappoint people," Hornacek says. "At
home, when you're struggling with your shot and you miss, you
hear that 'oooh' from the crowd, and maybe you start to press a
It wasn't a big surprise, then, that Malone finally regained his
touch when the series moved to Chicago. He made his first six
shots in Game 3, but it quickly became clear that he was the
only Jazz player not completely entangled in the Bulls'
defensive web. Malone ended up making 8 of 11 shots, but his
teammates were only 13 of 59 (22%), and Utah could not just
chalk that up to an off night. The Jazz made so few shots
because it was able to take so few good ones. Chicago shut down
Utah's famed pick-and-roll and just about anything else the Jazz
tried to run.
The Bulls' primary objective was to force Utah's short point
guards, the 6'1" Stockton and the 6'2" Howard Eisley, away from
the middle of the floor; stopping their penetration into the
lane severely limited the Jazz's options. Chicago added a
wrinkle by sending 6'7" Scottie Pippen, who again proved himself
to be the league's most versatile defender, out to help 6'6" Ron
Harper double-team Utah's point guard, making it difficult for
him to pass over, under or around their long arms. Pippen's two
steals and one blocked shot (he also drew three charging fouls)
didn't begin to indicate how disruptive he had been to the Jazz
offense. "Scottie was a one-man wrecking crew tonight," said
Bulls coach Phil Jackson.
Issue date: June 15, 1998