- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Utah had a remarkably injury-free season—its top eight players missed a total of only five games—but still seemed to tire near the finish line, losing eight of its last 13 to slide into second place (behind San Antonio) in the Midwest Division. The Suns, on the other hand, lost significant players (starting guards Johnson and the vastly underrated Jeff Hornacek, as well as top benchmen Eddie Johnson and Dan Majerle) for significant amounts of time (50 missed games among that foursome). But the team hung together and won 54 games, good for only third place in the rugged Pacific Division. The Suns came into the playoffs as the winningest team not to have earned the home-court advantage in the first round since the current playoff system was instituted in 1984. Nevertheless, considering Phoenix's triumph over adversity and Utah's failure in 1989, most observers favored the Suns.
But only, of course, with a healthy Johnson, who didn't play in Utah's lone win over Phoenix in the regular season. Utah had already demonstrated that it has no clue as to how to guard KJ—he scored 100 points against Utah in the three games in which he played during the season, shooting 52 free throws (and making 50). His creativity on the pick-and-roll he runs with Chambers is the half-court counterpoint to the Stockton-to-Malone power offense employed by Utah.
Johnson started to feel rocky on Wednesday of last week, but the symptoms—stomach cramps, chills, diarrhea, lack of energy—really kicked in on Friday morning, hours before Game 1. He insisted on giving it a try but looked wobbly, and at coach Cotton Fitzsimmons's insistence, he came out early in the second quarter and didn't return. Without KJ, Phoenix was susceptible to the aggressive half-court trapping defense that Utah used to pull away in the second period. It's exactly the kind of defense that KJ is able to shred with his quickness, and exactly the kind of defense that Sloan doesn't normally like to use.
"You know our mind-set," said Hansen after the game. "We want to play that tough, belly-up, Jerry Sloan, man-to-man. Anything else is considered a weakness, a gimmick. But, tonight, the gimmick helped us."
Johnson's participation in Game 2 looked unlikely when he missed Saturday's practice and spent three hours at Lakeview Hospital in Bountiful, a suburb of Salt Lake City. The idea was to pump intravenous fluids into his system—he received three liters—but he still felt terrible when he left the hospital. "At that point I wouldn't have given 10 cents for his chances of playing," said Dr. Paul Steingard, Phoenix's team physician. On the ride back from the hospital, Steingard instructed the cab driver to find a restaurant that served homemade chicken soup. They finally had to settle for a bowl of lemon-chicken soup at a Greek restaurant in Salt Lake City. "Greek penicillin," Steingard called it. Johnson woke up on Sunday feeling considerably better and even participated in the Suns' morning shootaround. By game time he said he felt "nearly 100 percent," but his stamina was the big question.
Through the first three quarters Fitzsimmons wisely bought Johnson a few minutes of rest here and there—whenever Stockton took a breather, KJ would follow, and whenever Stockton checked back in, KJ would do the same—and Johnson looked fresh for all of his team-high 39 minutes. One could weigh the relative merits of Johnson and Stockton for hours and not decide who is the better point guard. But it's clear that Johnson is much quicker and much more the beneficiary of a Phoenix offense that looks to spring him on picks, while Stockton's job is to send the ball in to Malone and think about his own shot only secondarily. Stockton has a much tougher task guarding Johnson than vice versa.
Having All-Star point guards isn't the only similarity between these two teams. Both have slashing young swingmen off the bench, Edwards for the Jazz, Majerle for the Suns. The difference is that while Edwards looks as if he'll be a fine player one day, Majerle already is. In temperament and playing style, Majerle resembles nothing so much as a football "roverback" or "monster," a guy who's always looking to stick his jaw into the middle of the action. He had 23 points in Game 1, 14 in Game 2.
Both teams also have defensive-oriented pivotmen, Mark Eaton for Utah, Mark West for Phoenix. Again, advantage to the Suns. While West found enough seams around the basket in Game 2 to score 14 points (to go with 21 rebounds), the 7'4" Eaton was reduced to almost total ineffectiveness, as he has been so often this season. He had four points, three rebounds and three blocked shots in Game 1, and two points, six rebounds and three blocks in Game 2. More and more, last season's Defensive Player of the Year is taking on a lighthouse aspect—conspicuous but often irrelevant. Teams are negating his shot-blocking and rebounding abilities by pulling him away from the basket, a trend that Golden State began in last year's playoffs.
Phoenix even got more or less of a wash in the battle of the big-scoring, trash-talking forwards. Chambers was awful, but Malone (15 of 41 for 41 points in the two games) wasn't much better. Everywhere the Mailman went, he was set upon by the mad neighborhood dogs of the Phoenix defense. There was veteran tough guy Kurt Rambis with an elbow in Malone's back. There was the unsmiling 6'10" Chambers ready to double-team. There was the menacing West, a 6'10" leaper, to help out when Malone did find an opening. There was the young, energetic Majerle coming over from heaven knows where. Even KJ, the choirboy-assassin, came down to get in a few licks on Malone.
"It was just kind of a swarming thing," said Malone after the game. "I'm not Superman. I can't beat everybody. Frustrated? I guess you could say that. I guess that's how I felt by the fourth quarter.