Utah toted a weighty piece of psychic baggage into its first-round NBA Western Conference playoff series against Phoenix last week. And when the second game ended Sunday night at the Salt Palace, the baggage was still there, as heavy as ever. Maybe heavier.
No, the Jazz did not duplicate last season's spectacular first-round, three-game flameout against lowly Golden State; a 113-96 victory over the Suns in last Friday night's Game 1 took care of that. But after a crushing 105-87 loss in Sunday's Game 2—the series is the best of five—the fans are again wondering why a team that carries such a sweet tune during the regular season suddenly hits all the wrong notes in the playoffs. Predictable. Inflexible. Too dependent upon the talents of two players, power forward Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton. Those were the flaws exposed during the crushing loss to Golden State last season, and, one year later, they are still evident.
Utah did prove one thing in Game 1: It knows how to exploit divine intervention. Phoenix point guard Kevin Johnson played only nine minutes (zero points, five assists) because of a flulike infection—viral enteritis, if you're scoring—and the Suns simply do not shine without KJ. Johnson's limited playing time required that a very large asterisk be placed next to the Utah win, and, obviously, it deserved to stay after a rejuvenated KJ (22 points, seven assists) led the Suns rout in Game 2.
"Having Kevin back made John [ Stockton] play harder on defense, which affected his offense at the other end," said Phoenix's Tom Chambers. Chambers's analysis was sharper than his play (he scored only 31 points on 7-of-28 shooting in Games 1 and 2), because Stockton was indeed visibly worn out from chasing Johnson around picks, and Stockton finished with just 12 points and eight assists.
If the Jazz should lose Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday and Friday—and Utah hasn't won in the Suns' Veterans Memorial Coliseum since March 7, 1986—many of the positive things accomplished during this club-record 55-victory season would be all but forgotten. That is exactly what happened a year ago after the Golden State "debacle," as Utah guard Bob Hansen terms it. "I've heard about that series all season," says Utah coach Jerry Sloan. "And I'll hear about it the rest of my life."
There were cries to break up the team at the end of last season, but eventually the Jazz management decided to make only slight changes. No surprise there, for Utah is a stay-the-course kind of franchise. Consider that only one of its 12 roster players, backup center Mike Brown, has even played for another team; everyone else is a Jazz draftee except for forward Raymond Brown, who was signed this season as a rookie free agent.
One change was the insertion of 6'11" Thurl Bailey into the starting lineup at small forward on Feb. 16. During his seven seasons in Utah, Bailey has come off the bench for Kelly Tripucka, Marc Iavaroni, Jos� Ortiz, Mike Brown and, for the first part of this season, rookie Blue Edwards. Bailey is the third most important player on this team, behind you-know-who and you-know-who, and it was clearly time to start him.
A related change has been the addition of Edwards, who gives Utah something it didn't have before—a swingman off the bench, an interchangeable part, someone to help out, as Stockton says, "when things get missymatchy." Utah is fortunate that director of player personnel Scotty Layden kept his mind open on the subject of Edwards, because when Layden first saw him, at a predraft camp in Portsmouth, Va., last year, he wrote "Can't play" next to his name. Edwards was reevaluated at a camp in Chicago, and the Jazz liked him well enough to make him the 21st pick of the '89 draft.
But let's get real here—Utah is still nine parts Malone-Stockton to one part everybody else; no team in the league relies so much upon two players. They are truly something special, a classic inside-outside, big man-little man tandem, the like of which the NBA has rarely seen. On the fast break, Stockton has an uncanny sense of when and where to deliver the ball to the hard-charging Malone—never too late, never too early. In the half-court offense, Stockton's entry passes to a posted-up Malone are almost always perfectly timed, too, coming after Malone has established his position, or, as Stockton says, when Malone is "locked in."
"With those two guys it's kind of like the old Green Bay Packer sweep," says Sloan. "You know it's coming, but the trick is to stop it." Few teams did during the regular season. Malone finished as the NBA's second highest scorer, with 31 points per game (behind Michael Jordan's 33.6), while Stockton led the league in assists for the third year in a row, with 14.5 per game, a full three per game better than Magic Johnson.