No, The Utah Jazz
has not disbanded since John Stockton and Karl Malone took their short shorts
and their pick-and-roll precision into retirement. Quite the contrary. The Jazz
has reached the Western Conference finals, its furthest incursion into the
postseason since 1998, when S&M lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago
Bulls in the Finals.
Utah is still coached by that ultimate NBA old-schooler, Jerry Sloan, who
collects tractors ("I haven't really counted, but around 65 sounds
right," he says) and is still eminently capable of peppering his team with
f bombs, as he did at halftime of Sunday's Game 1, which ended in a 108--100
loss to the San Antonio Spurs. It has a couple of lunch-pail veterans in the
Sloan-Stockton-Malone tradition: Guard Derek Fisher, the owner of three
championship rings from his days with the Los Angeles Lakers, and forward Matt
Harpring, the owner of countless battle scars from a combative career with four
teams. And it once again has a hard-nosed, steely-eyed quarterback in Deron
Williams, a kind of 21st-century Stockton--only with lots of skin ink.
Williams scored 34
points and had only one turnover in Game 1 against a defense that had
frustrated Phoenix Suns All-Star point guard Steve Nash in the previous
problem for the Jazz, however, is that the Spurs are a version of their old
selves, too, and that version won a championship just two years ago, and two
years before that, and four years before that. Having emerged from a classic
six-gamer against Phoenix, San Antonio has clearly become the favorite (if it
wasn't already) in a final four long on pedigree--the West's Spurs and the
East's Detroit Pistons each have three championships--but short on star power.
In recent weeks Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and
Steve Nash have been shown the postseason door. Sure, Cleveland's LeBron James
lives on in the East (page 43), but in the West we will discover if the viewing
public can invest in a duel between the relentlessly efficient Spurs ("a
slow, positional team," as Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko says) and the
Cinderellas from Utah, who were supposed to be eliminated by now, first by the
Houston Rockets and then by the Golden State Warriors.
Plus, it's hard
not to pine for more of San Antonio-- Phoenix, one of the best playoff series in
recent memory, one that featured, besides lots of great basketball, a
Kafkaesque decision by the NBA that both mistreated the Suns and tainted the
wrapped up a Game 4 win and a 2--2 series tie in San Antonio when Spurs forward
Robert Horry hip-checked Nash into the scorer's table with 18 seconds left in
the game. Two of Nash's teammates, center Amar� Stoudemire and forward Boris
Diaw, rose from the bench in protest, an eminently human reaction considering
that their leader had been treated like a pi�ata (bloodied nose in Game 1, knee
to the crotch by Bruce Bowen in Game 2) to that point. Stoudemire advanced
about 20 feet toward the action before being restrained, Diaw maybe 15 feet
before turning around himself. An NBA rule against "leaving the vicinity of
the bench area" during an altercation resulted in both players being
suspended for Game 5. So the net result of a flagrant act by one team (Horry
was suspended for two games) was that the other team paid the price.
Stu Jackson, the
NBA's rules czar, was asked if that was fair. "It's not about
fairness," answered Jackson, "it's about correctness." The
absurdity of that statement boggles the mind, as does commissioner David
Stern's churlish defense of the decision on a national radio show. "To
listen to the palaver that Robert Horry changed the series is just silly,"
Stern told ESPN's Dan Patrick. Well, a lot of Spurs fans who don't know what
palaver means were among those giving Horry a 30-second standing ovation when
he checked into Game 1 on Sunday, his first appearance since the hip check;
apparently, they thought he changed the series.
their top scorer (Stoudemire, a first-team All-NBA pick) and their No. 2
playmaker ( Diaw), behind Nash, the Suns dropped Game 5 at home, 88--85, and
went into San Antonio for Game 6 at a severe psychological disadvantage.
Phoenix eventually succumbed 114--106, leaving the Suns with a 6--15 record
against the Spurs since Nash arrived three years ago, not to mention an
off-season full of question marks.
Big Three can be defined by flaws ( Nash gets worn down, forward Shawn Marion is
inconsistent, Stoudemire is a sieve on defense), San Antonio's Big Three is
defined by a seeming imperviousness to pressure. Forward Tim Duncan averaged
26.8 points and 13.7 rebounds in the series and played remarkable help defense,
point guard Tony Parker consistently drilled open jumpers when the Suns doubled
down on Duncan, and shooting guard Manu Gin�bili scored 26 and 33 points in the
final two games.
of them did surprised us," said Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni, "but when
all three are doing the right things at the same time, you're in big
The Jazz found
that out in Game 1 when the Spurs' Big Three made 26 of 44 shots and combined
for 71 points. Duncan, in particular, has been so routinely excellent in the
postseason that were awards voting taking place now, he most likely would win
both MVP (he finished fourth) and Defensive Player of the Year (he finished