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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.
The immediate 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 Spurs' victory.
Phoenix had 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.
Anyway, without 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.
While Phoenix's 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.
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 second).