"There aren't any secrets to what we do," Utah guard Jeff Hornacek said. "We do the same things against everybody. We play the Lakers, we all guard down against Shaq, and then we run out at the three-point shooters. Maybe, because it's the playoffs, we run out a little faster, but that didn't matter. They were missing those shots. That was the big thing."
L.A.'s grim situation was covered in a letter written by point guard Derek Fisher to his teammates on the night before Game 4. What had gone wrong? Everything. Fisher had things he wanted to say, frustrations he felt but hadn't known how to get them across. After a talk with Shaq, he wrote his letter by hand, ran it through a copying machine more than 20 times and handed it out to his coaches and teammates in the locker room on Sunday morning.
"Since the conference finals started WE have played inconsistent," he wrote in part. "WE have allowed OUR opponent to play harder than US. We have allowed OUR opponent come into OUR home and beat US. At times, WE just haven't come to play!
"Now is the time for US to do what WE have done before. WE must not give in. WE must not allow the peripheral opponent to divide US. WE must stick together and believe in one another. WE must persevere and play OUR best basketball...."
The letter didn't help enough. The Lakers' effort was better in Game 4, especially in the second half, but the plot lines already were drawn. Again, Shaq was left to handle most of the offense, and he scored 38 points. Again the Jazz got help from different places. Hornacek, previously quiet, had 15 points. Ostertag had 11. Malone had a workmanlike 32. Each team shot 33 free throws. Utah hit 30. L.A. hit 22. That was the game right there.
"It got so you'd think about anything" Van Exel said at the end. "You know what I noticed? We'd always come out early after a timeout. Every time. We'd be standing around, waiting. They'd all still be in the huddle. What were they doing? What was that all about? What were they saying?"
"We were resting," Sloan said. "That's all. I don't say much in the huddle. We just stay there to get more rest. We have some old guys."
The old guys were the answer. The old guys, the experience. Old Guys 4, Young Guys 0. Now Malone and Stockton would be off for at least one more week of rest before returning to a Finals that for once in recent years might be competitive. The Lakers were left to consider their lessons. Shaq said, "Guys have to step up. If they don't want to play, then they need to ask for a trade. If they don't want to play, then get off my team." Forward Robert Horry was admiring "the unity" Utah has. Blount was considering those acting lessons.
The important questions for Los Angeles will be addressed in the upcoming weeks or months. Will there be big changes? Will executive vice president Jerry West leave, and will his replacement look for a new direction? Will Harris survive a surprise playoff exit like this? Will deals be made, free agents signed? Will these Lakers have a chance to grow? Or will there be a rush for a different fertilizer?
Harris hopes the situation stays the same. He pointed no farther than the visiting locker room to find support for his case. "How long did it take their guys to get where they are?" he asked. "How many of these situations did they go through? They're 35 and 36, and they've made it. We're 25 and 26, and we're right next to them now. We're going to be there a lot sooner than they were."