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 prayer.
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 conference finals.
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 alter 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.