Utah Jazz power forward Karl Malone, a self-described "Louisiana country boy" and lover of all things rural, gives the distinct impression that he would rather move into a Manhattan studio apartment than analyze the duel of duos he and Jazz point guard John Stockton are waging against their Seattle SuperSonics counterparts and fellow All-Stars, power forward Shawn Kemp and point guard Gary Payton, in the NBA Western Conference finals. "We're playing five-on-five, not two-on-two on the playground, so why talk about it that way?" Malone said last Saturday before Game 1. "This isn't tennis. We're not playing doubles."
Certainly no one was confusing this matchup with Wimbledon. The Jazz-Sonics confrontation was cast in terms more reminiscent of a figure skating pairs competition, with the precisely choreographed routines of Malone and Stockton, so beautiful in their simplicity, matched against the higher-degree-of-difficulty jumps and spins of the flamboyant Kemp and Payton. When Kemp looked up at the scoreboard after dunking in Game 1, it wasn't clear if he was checking the score or awaiting his marks from a Russian judge. "I'd give both [duos] a lot of style points," says Utah forward Bryon Russell, "but for a totally different kind of style."
In the first two games of the best-of-seven series, played at Seattle's Key Arena, the edge in both style and substance went to Kemp and Payton. They propelled the Sonics to a 2-0 lead with a 102-72 demolition of the Jazz in Game 1, followed by a 91-87 win on Monday night. Utah hoped to rebound in Games 3 and 4, scheduled for Friday and Sunday in Salt Lake City's Delta Center, where the Jazz was 34-7 during the regular season and 6-0 in the first two rounds of the postseason.
Despite Malone's protestations, it was impossible not to focus on the fascinating four-man battle within the war, because the Malone-Stockton and Kemp-Payton tandems define not only their teams but also their generations. Stockton, 34, and Malone, 32, represent the NBA Establishment, throwbacks to an earlier time, right down to the old-fashioned, form-fitting shorts that Stockton still favors instead of the bloomers currently in style. Payton, 27, and Kemp, 26, are the Jazz pair's heirs apparent, the 1990s version of the point guard-power forward combination. If Stockton and Malone are the pick-and-roll and the instructional film, Payton and Kemp are the alley-oop and the highlight video. "Stockton and Malone set the standard for how a point guard and power forward should play together, and Gary and Shawn are what that combination has evolved into," says Seattle forward-center Sam Perkins. "Stockton and Malone are more conservative, and Gary and Shawn like to do their thing with a little more flair, which is the way the NBA has gone these days. You can't say one way is better than the other; they're just different."
The NBA apparently has a preference. In an effort to put their best foot forward at this summer's Olympics in Atlanta, league officials, in conjunction with USA Basketball, chose Malone and Stockton to make their second Olympic appearances rather than offer spots to Kemp and Payton for the first time. The snubbing of the Sonics was a clear indication that the league was wary of the taunting behavior Kemp exhibited at the world championships in 1994 and of Payton's trash-talking reputation. Kemp and Payton brush aside all Olympic inquiries—"They made their choice, and that's that," says Kemp. "I can live with it." But their performance in these playoffs, particularly against Malone and Stockton, will go a long way toward erasing, or solidifying, their reputations as somewhat offensive characters.
Stockton and Malone, for their part, don't particularly care to be anyone's measuring sticks. The affable Malone, a first-team All-NBA selection for the last eight seasons, has a self-deprecating manner that sometimes obscures how protective he is of his status as the league's preeminent power forward. But his relationship with Kemp, who has supplanted him as the West's starting power forward in the All-Star Game the last three years, is, if not warm, at least respectful. "He has definitely turned into a great player," Malone says of Kemp. "If he's not the best power forward, he's right up there." Reminded that many still consider him the best power forward, Malone smiled and said, "Yeah, but I'm old."
Kemp was certainly worthy of Malone's compliments in Game 1, when he made all nine of his first-half shots, finishing with 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting and 11 rebounds. Kemp, who averaged only 11.3 points on 37.5% shooting against Malone and the Jazz in the regular season, made the small but critical adjustment of holding the ball up high when he posted up, which kept Malone from reaching in and stripping the ball, one of his favorite defensive moves. "I thought Shawn played more of a technical game than an athletic game," Seattle coach George Karl said afterward. That represents a major step forward for Kemp, who is proving that opponents can no longer count on him to lose his composure. And in Game 2 Kemp played the final 10:44 with live fouls but scored eight points and made the key steal. On defense Kemp has an added advantage: While Malone has to expend a great deal of energy defending against him, he does not have to guard Malone. That task falls mostly to center Ervin Johnson or Perkins, who held Malone to a quiet 21 points in Game 1.
At times it must have seemed to Stockton that all the swarming Sonics were guarding him. "Before the game, in the films of them, it looked as if they were playing six guys on defense," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said after Game 1. "Today it looked like they had 10." In their semifinal sweep of the Houston Rockets, the Sonics double-teamed Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon in the low post, but against Utah they have selected Stockton as the focal point of their defense. In both games, instead of doubling Malone down low, they threw traps at Stockton on the perimeter in an effort to make him give the ball to teammates and keep him from running the lethal pick-and-roll. "In the Houston series we were aggressive and disruptive," Karl said after Game 1. "This series we're more into controlling. We want to limit Stockton by forcing him to put the ball in the hands of other people."
Payton, of course, is central to that strategy, and he was up to the task in Game 1, helping to limit Stockton to four points and seven assists (more than seven and five, respectively, below his averages in Utah's first two series) on 2-for-10 shooting. Against most opponents Payton, who finished with 21 points, seven assists and three steals, would have made sure to give his success a sound track—a steady stream of trash talk—but when he plays Stockton, the NBA leader in career steals and assists, he bites his tongue out of respect. In fact, during Game 1, one of the only times he spoke to Stockton, who has been playing with a strained left hamstring, was to inquire about his health. Early in the season Payton was talking about the various weaknesses he tries to attack in opposing point guards, but when Stockton's name came up, his tone became almost reverent. "He's the best," Payton said then. "I'm still looking for a real weakness in his game. If there's one guy I want to be like, it's Stockton."
Not all the Sonics have been so complimentary. Earlier this season guard Nate McMillan said, "Stockton comes across as a person who plays the game hard and doesn't do any dirty work, but he's probably the meanest, toughest guy on that team. When he sets a pick on a big guy, he'll give him an elbow in the ribs. He's been getting away with it for years." Although McMillan backed off those comments at the start of the series—"He's a smart, clever player who knows what he can and can't do," he said—there was probably no need to, since nothing seems to get a rise out of the laconic Stockton. "I don't care what people say about me, and I don't care about individual matchups," he said last Friday in what for him qualified as a speech. "I just play."