Westhead coached the Lakers to the title 30 years ago, when Showtime was in its infancy. "Then in the mid-1990s, the game got slower and slower and slower," Westhead says. "It became a slugfest—throw the ball down low, let the big guys beat each other up, strongest man wins." In 1990 teams scored 107.0 points per game. When the decade closed they were averaging 91.6, thanks to 24-second isolation plays appealing to no one but the Knicks and the Heat.
This season, though, the scoring average rose above 100 points for the first time since 1994--95. Of the 12 teams to break the century mark, eight came from the West, led by Phoenix with 110.2. Westhead would love to see Nash & Co. fast-break their way to a championship, if only to disprove the notion that running teams can't win in the playoffs. "Hogwash," he says.
As the Suns took a 29-point lead into halftime against the Blazers in Game 3, Westhead cautioned, "Because of the way they play, they're never home free. If you back off and play careful, you can get caught." Indeed, Portland cut the deficit to 11 in the fourth quarter, but Phoenix kept pushing until it had a 108--89 victory and a 2--1 lead. Westhead could not imagine the Blazers advancing without All-Star guard Brandon Roy; he returned for Game 4 last Saturday, eight days after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, and Portland prevailed 96--87 to tie the series, holding the Suns to their lowest point total of the season. For one day at least, the pace was halted.
Kyrylo Fesenko, the Jazz's Ukranian center, likes to listen to thumping European techno pop before games, cranking up the volume on his headphones to eardrum-endangering levels. Teammate Kyle Korver suggested that a mellower soundtrack might help the overeager Fesenko avoid the early fouls he often commits, a piece of advice the rookie is finding hard to follow. "I don't want to be too calm," he says. "I need to be excited, really pumped."
That's apparently the best state of mind for the rest of the team as well. The loss of injured starters Mehmet Okur (torn Achilles) and Andrei Kirilenko (strained calf) was expected to doom Utah against the Nuggets, but the Jazz took a 3--1 series lead by playing with a near-manic energy, diving on the deck for loose balls as if getting paid by the floor burn, jumping into defensive position to take charges—Denver forward Carmelo Anthony committed four in Utah's 114--111 Game 2 victory—and generally hustling like jayvee kids trying to make the varsity.
Both teams' stars had their moments—Anthony scored 42 points in Game 1 and Jazz point guard Deron Williams had 33 points and 14 assists in Game 2—but the unexpected entertainment came from the relative unknowns who set the scrappy tone for the Jazz. Swingmen Wesley Matthews and C.J. Miles were defensive irritants to Anthony, and the 7'1", 300-pound Fesenko, who became a starter after Okur's Game 1 injury, helped forwards Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap more than hold their own in the paint. At times coach Jerry Sloan went with a lineup that seemed more suited for summer league than the postseason, with three undrafted free agents (Fesenko, Matthews and guard Ronnie Price) and a second-round pick (Miles) joining Millsap. "They're flying around out there," said Denver point guard Chauncey Billups. "Utah's got a bunch of young guys, hungry guys, trying to make their mark."
The jolt of energy from the young guns added another subplot to a series that already had a serious one—the absence of Nuggets coach George Karl, who is battling throat and neck cancer—and a frivolous one: Anthony's new Nike commercial, which made reference to his "fans in Utah." The Jazz faithful let him know he didn't have many of them inside Energy Solutions Arena, booing him every time he touched the ball. It all made for a fascinating series, although Denver described it with a different f word. "It's frustrating," Rex Chapman, the Nuggets' vice president of player personnel, said after Anthony fouled out of Denver's Game 2 loss. "Melo had two and three guys hanging on him, yet he gets called for all those offensive fouls."