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 track."
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.