The Jazz players were the worker ants, the eager students, finishing off every cut, diving for every loose ball, all that good stuff, running that pick-and-roll as if they were giving a summer clinic for fat rich kids. The Utah offense started with that basic move, spelled out first in hieroglyphics on the wall of an Egyptian tomb: 36-year-old John Stockton passing the ball to 34-year-old Karl Malone and Malone passing back and rolling to the basket. Everyone else was available to help. Everyone did help, roles defined, shooters shooting, rebounders rebounding, nobody deviating in times of stress. The bench seemed to run forever.
"The way it's been in the past, teams would go out there to stop Karl and John and figure they would stop the Jazz," Malone said during the series. "Well, that's not the case now. We've got some other guys who can put a hurt on you."
One minute Bryon Russell would be hitting a three-pointer—"I've always said a guy could make a nice career for himself playing that number 3 spot with me and John," Malone said—and the next minute Chris Morris would be hitting that shot, or Shandon Anderson would. Or Howard Eisley would be taking Stockton's place at point guard with the same deadpan expression, the same textbook offense. Or Greg Ostertag would be battling Shaq for a rebound. Or Greg Foster would. Or Antoine Carr. The old system worked as well as it ever has.
"What's the best thing about this team?" Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was asked.
"We've all been together for a long time," he said. "There's no volatility here. Nothing's changed. I've been here. The players have been here."
The Jazz, not the Lakers, knew how to win games at the end. ("You learn that over the years," Malone said. "You get the ball into the hands of the people who can shoot the fouls, who know what to do. If you don't do that, guys sometimes do strange things.") The Jazz knew how to draw the foul, make the free throw, use the erratic playoff refereeing to their advantage. ("I've never taken an acting class in my life," Blount said, "but after seeing this, I'm signing up this summer.") The Jazz simply knew.
"Because of the way they play, it's like the project guys going to play against a bunch of guys who set pick-and-rolls, who do the little things, while the project guys always want to do the fancy behind-the-back dribbles and do the spectacular plays," Van Exel said between Game 3 and Game 4, explaining the situation as well as anyone. "Maybe it's the age. We feel that if we go out there and just lace up the shoes and run around and do the dunks, we can win. But it's not like that."
The most important game was Game 3, last Friday night. That's when the series arrived at the Forum, the Lakers still believing that the momentum would change because they would play at home, win two and go on from there. They never had a chance.
Malone had preached the virtues of winning the third game because, he said, "we always have trouble with that game. We have to do what Chicago always does, take care of business as fast as we can." So the Jazz played its best game. It shot 52% from the floor, made 7 of 11 three-pointers, hit 24 of 29 from the free throw line. Ten guys contributed to Utah's 109-98 win. Russell had 17 points. Anderson had 13. Morris, coming off the bench and firing, had 15 points and seven rebounds.
Los Angeles, tighter and tighter, was reduced to an offense of Shaq and more Shaq. He scored 39 points, but take away his 17-for-30 shooting and the Lakers were 18 for 55. The Forum was half empty by the time the game ended.