When they first offered to make Karl Malone a hero, he was hesitant, because if there is one thing Malone has learned, it's that heroes are not easily made. But then the illustrator sent him artwork, and the writer sent him story lines, and Malone finally approved of the concept for a comic-book superhero called the Mailman, a futuristic (is there any other kind?) crime fighter who would battle the robots and aliens threatening the world. When the prospective creators of the Mailman met with Malone in April, he had a couple of requests. Make that demands. "I don't want to get shot, and I don't want to get scratched up," Malone told them. "If you're a superhero, you're not supposed to get killed or scratched or shot. You're supposed to defy the odds."
Malone wishes those rules held true in real life, where at week's end he was facing odds much longer than any his comicbook counterpart will ever encounter. Single-handedly saving mankind from an alien invasion is a minor undertaking compared to wresting a championship from the Chicago Bulls. At least that's the way it seemed on Sunday night after the Bulls had administered a history-making, 96-54 thrashing to Malone's Utah Jazz, giving Chicago a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals. Utah's point total was the lowest in any NBA game since the introduction of the shot clock in 1954, and the Jazz's offensive futility was so mind-boggling that its coach, Jerry Sloan, stopped in mid-sentence during his postgame press conference when he glanced at the final statistics. "Was that the score?" he said. "Was that really the final score?"
Utah took some small comfort in the knowledge that it had two more chances, on Wednesday in Game 4 and on Friday in Game 5, to get the one victory that would send the series back to Salt Lake City, but there was no escaping the feeling that Chicago had not just beaten the Jazz but also had solved the Jazz. The Bulls' defenders attacked so ferociously that Utah couldn't run its intricately patterned offense. Chicago forced the Jazz out of its plays and into one-on-one basketball, which is a little like making the Royal Philharmonic improvise its way through Good Golly Miss Molly. "I think we have a good feel for their offense," Michael Jordan said after Game 3. There are no more ominous words for a Bulls opponent. They are usually Jordan's kiss of death, his way of saying, We have located this team's heart and are capable of removing it whenever we choose.
After the first two games of the series, the heart most in question was Malone's. The Mailman comic book calls for Malone to be revived after years of being frozen in Arctic ice, which might have explained his frigid touch in the early going against Chicago. He struggled through two horrid performances, making 9 of 25 shots in Game 1, and 5 of 16 in Game 2, and even though Utah split the games, it was obvious that the Bulls would make short work of the Jazz unless Malone returned to the form that has made him an 11-time All-Star and the 1996-97 league MVP. "If I don't play better," he said after Utah's 93-88 loss in Game 2, "we don't win this series."
The rest of the Jazz players knew that as well, which is why they took pains to make sure Malone didn't dwell on his shooting problems. The night before Game 3, Stockton, Adam Keefe and guard Jeff Hornacek had dinner with Malone in Chicago, where they engaged in their usual good-natured exchange of insults. The Mailman's shooting was one of the featured topics. "We got a smile out of him," said Hornacek, "but I don't know if I'd say he actually laughed."
If Malone was a bit grim, it was understandable. He doesn't seem to hunger for the hero's role so much as he wants to avoid disappointing his fans and teammates. Everywhere he turns in Utah he's reminded of how badly the entire state wants a championship. Every time he drives home, he sees a sign posted in front of his neighbor's house bearing the numbers from 15 to one, representing the 15 wins the Jazz needed at the start of the playoffs to become champions for the first time in its history. With each victory, another number is crossed out. "Sometimes all die support can almost turn into a negative, if you try so hard not to disappoint people," Hornacek says. "At home, when you're struggling with your shot and you miss, you hear that 'oooh' from the crowd, and maybe you start to press a little bit."
It wasn't a big surprise, then, that Malone finally regained his touch when the series moved to Chicago. He made his first six shots in Game 3, but it quickly became clear that he was die only Jazz player not completely entangled in the Bulls' defensive web. Malone ended up making 8 of 11 shots, but his teammates were only 13 of 59 (22%), and Utah could not just chalk that up to an off night. The Jazz made so few shots because it was able to take so few good ones. Chicago shut down Utah's famed pick-and-roll and just about anything else the Jazz tried to run.
The Bulls' primary objective was to force Utah's short point guards, die 6'1" Stockton and the 6'2" Howard Eisley, away from the middle of the floor; stopping their penetration into the lane severely limited the Jazz's options. Chicago added a wrinkle by sending 6'7" Scottie Pippen, who again proved himself to be the league's most versatile defender, out to help 6'6" Ron Harper double-team Utah's point guard, making it difficult for him to pass over, under or around their long arms. Pippen's two steals and one blocked shot (he also drew three charging fouls) didn't begin to indicate how disruptive he had been to the Jazz offense. "Scottie was a one-man wrecking crew tonight," said Bulls coach Phil Jackson.
Chicago was able to deploy this defense because it had Pippen guarding 7'2" center Greg Ostertag. When Pippen went to double-team the point, Ostertag was the man left unguarded. The Bulls deemed this a worthwhile gamble because 1) Ostertag is a weak offensive player, and 2) Pippen and Harper were pushing the Utah guards so far from the basket that they often had to throw lobs or long passes to get Ostertag the ball. This gave the quick Chicago defenders time to rotate back into position and challenge Ostertag's shots. Ostertag missed six of his seven attempts, but he wasn't the only Jazz player who had a hard time scoring inside. The long-limbed Bulls made what should have been easy shots hard. Asked how Utah could combat Chicago's defensive approach, Ostertag said, "Make some layups."
The Bulls' strategy of attacking Stockton and Eisley (they shot a combined 1 for 10, and Stockton had five turnovers) wasn't entirely new. The Jazz had faced similar defenses from other teams, but other teams don't have Harper and Pippen. "Their defensive pressure was great," Malone said after Game 3. "But our plays will work if we run them and give them time."