Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Year after

After mostly outplaying the Bulls in 1997, before falling short to the MJ Heroics, the Jazz came back the next season with the same cast, primed to knock off the Bulls, who were also a year older. The Jazz had a nice mix of veteran leadership(Stockton, Malone, and Hornecek were STILL at the top of their respective games) youth, and depth. First the Jazz had to begin the year without Stockton, who went under the knife for a knee surgery. He wound up missing the first 18 games, returning in early December, with the Jazz at 11-7. After about a month or so of finding their groove again, the Jazz tore through the second half of the season once again, out distancing the Spurs(who now featured a Twin Tower effect in Rookie Tim Duncan and Veteran David Robinson, who had missed nearly all of the previous year)for the Midwest Divsion Title and running down the Lakers, and Sonics for the best overall record in the West at 62-20. That's 51-13 after Stockton's return. The Bulls actually "slipped" to the same 62-20 record and the Jazz actually won the tiebreaker against them should they meet again in the Finals. They beat Chicago in both regular season meetings during the 1997-98 campaign.

The Jazz, however, nearly suffered a first round flameout again. There were visions of 1995, in Salt Lake City, after the Jazz opened up with a lackluster Game One defeat to the Houston Rockets. The injury depleted Rockets had stuggled to a 41-41 record but managed to qualify for the eighth and final spot. They also had everyone back to face the one team they would rather beat than anyone else, the Top seeded Jazz. Utah absolutely had to win game 2 and they did rather easily, 105-92 but the Rockets had stolen away home court. This wasn't the typical ONE verses EIGHT matchup, everyone knew that going in. And Houston took the Jazz to the brink of defeat by winning a close one in Game Three at home 89-85. Utah reacted to being on the ropes in Game Four by really struggling through the first two and a half quarters. They were down by ten 63-53 at one point but inched back to tie things at the end of the third. Then Charles Barkley was lost for the remainder of the series with a knee injury. The Jazz came alive in the fourth and wound up running away with a 93-71 win to get the fifth and deciding game back up to Salt Lake. Without Barkley, the Rockets struggled in the fifth game, succumbing 84-70(not uncommon scores back then given the style of NBA play of that time)

Having survived their first rounder against Houston, the Jazz next drew the San Antonio Spurs, playoff victims of the Jazz in 1994 and 1996. The Spurs, who would go on to win four NBA titles in a Nine Year span, starting in 1999, would contest the Jazz in the first two games, with the Jazz opening up with a ONE point victory in game one. Game two went into double overtime before the Jazz escaped with a three point win. Game Three down in San Antonio, was all Spurs, as the Jazz suffered a letdown from the first two games-it was ugly, 86-64. The Jazz were able to bounce back the following evening in San Antonio, led by Karl Malone's 34(without even attempting a single free throw) to win 82-73 and take a commanding 3-1 series edge back home where they would finish things with an 87-77 victory in Game 5.

Meanwhile, the young, talented, yet still undisciplined, Lakers, led by Del Harris, had a suprisingly easy time with Seattle, winning four straight convincing games, after dropping Game One. There was talk that the Lakers might go all the way. The Jazz were still the consensus favorite, since they had a more experienced cast, and had the homecourt advantage. The Trendy pick, ofcourse was LA, based on how they were playing, and how the Jazz had been grinding it out in their first two rounds. In Game ONE, The Jazz hit the Lakers with a barrage of haymakers, bolting out to a 40-15 lead and never looking back, winning 112-77. Game 2 was a game that I attended actually, and it was the best played game of the series. The Lakers showed up in this one, leading throughout the first three quarters, only to have the Jazz play more disciplined down the stretch in winning 99-95. After three days off, Game Three was down in the old Forum, and the Jazz took apart the Lakers again, pulling away in the fourth, despite Shaq going off for around 50. It was 109-98 and the Lakers players were bewildered afterwards, all but conceding the series at this point with the loss. Two days later, the Jazz were able to complete the four game sweep with another win. Now they had to WAIT TEN DAYS for the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls had mowed down New Jersey and Atlanta in the first two rounds but were pushed to seven games by Indiana. The Pacers won three close games at home while the Bulls had won their three at home fairly easily. In Game Seven in Chicago, the game went down to the wire, but the Bulls survived, thanks to a key three pointer by Steve Kerr, and Michael Jordan outleaping 7-4 Rik Smits on a jump ball, the final score being 88-83.

The Bulls and Jazz squared off, this time with Utah having homecourt. After the Jazz won Game One, the Bulls stole Homecourt away in Game 2 when Kerr got a key rebound and fed Michael Jordan with a clinching layup. Game 3 was a wash for the Jazz as they no showed in a 96-54 (YES 54)debacle. Game 4 went down to the wire like games one and two, with the Jazz employing a Hack Rodman Strategy at the end. Rodman stunningly made 5 of six foul shots to give the Bulls a four point win and a 3-1 edge. Facing elimination in Game 5, also in Chicago, the Jazz got strong efforts from Karl Malone (39 pts) and the BiG Dawg (ANtoine Carr) and were able to thwart Jordan's late game efforts to take over late. The Jazz escaped by two to send the series back to Salt Lake City. In Game Six, it was closely contested all the way, Pippen hurt his back and didn't play for a lot of the second half (he likely would've missed game seven it's believed)and Michael Jordan kept Chicago close all by himself. There were two questionable calls by hated Ref Dick Bavetta that favored the Bulls, allowing one shot by the Bulls Ron Harper to count after the shot clock had expired, and disallowing a shot by Howard Eisely that should've counted. But ofcourse, it all came down to Michael Jordan at the end, stealing the ball from Karl Malone from behind, and basically stealing the championship from the Jazz. His shot over Bryan Russell, you just knew was going in and ofcourse, Stockton's valiant miss at the end to win it for the Jazz caused the stunned fans in the Delta Center to think "maybe it's not meant to be". When the Jazz failed to win the championship the next year with the Bulls disbanded, you had to know that the Championship door on the Stockton-Malone era had slammed shut.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Not just a Cowboys Blog

I am a big fan of the Jazz as well. I remember the feeling I had back in 1997 and 1998 when they went back to back in the Finals losing each time in six games to the mighty Chicago (Michael Jordan) Bulls. I think that 1997 was not to be that big of a dissappointment as far as the finals go because, the Bulls were expected to win it(I believed that it was the final one for the Chicago)and that the Jazz finally getting there was the beautiful thing of it. In 1996-97, after years of near misses (1988, 1992, 1994, 1996) mixed in with years of disheartening first round playoff flameouts(see 1989, 1990, and 1995) the Jazz finally made it to the finals with the aid of a 64-18 record (best in the West and an NBA Best in MOST seasons) compared to the 69-13 Bulls. THat year, the Jazz were as deep as anyone in the league, maybe not the most talented but the most disaplined. Karl Malone won his first Regular season MVP award. He was approaching the age of 34 and still in his prime. John Stockton, the point guard, who had already become the league's all time leader in assists and steals, was still the savvy floor general and at age 35, was also, incredibly still near his peak. Jeff Hornecek was the shooting guard, while he and Stockton were backed up adequately by Howard Eisely and Shandon Anderson. Throw in Adam Keefe and Veteral Antoine "BiG DAWG" Carr for depth at the Forward spots to back up Malone and Bryon Russell. And not to forget about Greg Foster and Chris Morris, each pure shooters, who made the Jazz that much tougher to beat when they were hot from the outside. The Center was young Greg Ostertag, who was up and coming at the time, and about to become a very rich young underachiever in the years ahead once he signed that new deal. The Jazz closed out the year, an astounding 31-4 over the final 35 games of the regular season, in pulling away from the rest of the Western Conference field. Houston, a talented veteran team with Hakeem, Charles Barkley, and Clyde Drexler, finished a distant second to the Jazz at 56-26. Los Angeles had won their division with a 56-26 record. They would meet the Jazz in the second round, after Utah completed their first ever playoff sweep against the Clippers 3-0 in the first round(still a best of five at that time)The Lakers, a young team headed by Shaq, were talented but undisciplined, unharnessed. They would go down in five to the Jazz 4-1, although they played them tough in close losses in Salt Lake City in games 2(Jazz escaped 103-101) and Game 5(the clinching game with the Jazz winning 98-93 in overtime, remembered best for Rookie Kobe Bryant's airballs) So now it was Houston in the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets had easily dispatched the first time playoff bound Minnesota Timberwolves in the opening round and then outlasted the Seattle Supersonics(the previous year's Western COnf. Champs) in a grueling seven game series. The Jazz were rested and took the Rockets easily in Games 1 and two (101-86 and 104-92 respectively) In Game Three, the Jazz roared out to a 31-18 lead after one period but hit a wall thereafter as HOuston stormed back and seized a 118-100 win. Then, in Game Four, the Rockets evened the series in a close one 95-92 when reserve forward "Fast" Eddie Johnson drilled a three pointer as time expired. Game 5 was close as well, with the Jazz being able to stay one step ahead throughout the second half. Karl Malone's 29 helped the Jazz regain the series edge 3-2 in a 96-91 win. Game Six was hotly contested, back and forth with the Rockets facing elimination and the Jazz trying to close it out down in Houston. After three quarters it was 71-70 Houston. But in the fourth quarter, the Rockets surged to a 90-77 lead, and the series looked to be headed back up to Utah again for a winner-take-all Game 7. Many Jazz fans, myself included, turned the game off at that point, resigned to game seven. I remember thinking" at least it's up here". At work the next morning is when I found out what happened. The Best Finish that I didn't see live. The Jazz stormed back with the aid of Stockton, to forge a 100 all tie in the closing seconds. The Rockets had their chance to win it and failed and the Jazz rebounded with two seconds left and called timeout. The inbounds pass went to Stockton, who was left alone with Barkely arriving too late. Karl Malone had bearhug picked Clyde the Glide out of the way as well, and Stock let it fly from about 25 feet. "UH OH" said announcer Greg Gumbel, followed by" YES! JOHN STOCKTON SENDS THE UTAH JAZZ TO THE NBA FINALS!!!!!" In the winners lockerroom afterwards, Jeff Hornacek said the most striking statement of all "We knew that they (HOuston) would be tight if it was close at the end, because we had the luxury of a Game seven(at home no less)and they didn't"

Now that we're halfway to the next season

That loss to the HATED, DESPISED, DAMNED Giants was a BITTER BITTER BITTER pill for me as a fan to swallow. But believe it or not, the players have got to feel worse. They owned these guys and they did not come through. Penalties, Dropped Passes, and hampered with some poor field position for critical parts of the game that allowed New York to stay in it and find away in what turned into sort of a chess match in the second half, is how Dallas would blow itself up. And all you have to do is look at the stats. 350 total yards for Dallas. 230 for the Giants. The Cowboys also had the time of possession edge by nearly TWO to ONE. Their TE Jeremy Shockey was out with broken leg, and may not even be back in a Giants uniform this coming season. Their Top wideout Plaxico Burress had ONE catch for FIVE yards. They rushed for only 55 yards. Dallas had somewhere close to 150 although they got away from that in the second half somewhat when Romo started feeling the pressure, perhaps remembering that he hadn't yet won his first playoff game. Eli Manning was only 12-18 for 160 yards. And on the defensive side, the vaunted secondary of the Giants, who was lit up for nearly 80 points in the two losses to Big D in the regular season, didn't even have their best defender in CB Sam Madison. T.O. wasn't nearly 100 percent recovered from his injury, probably would've still been slowed had the Cowboys survived this and perhaps made it all the way to the Super Bowl. But it's not a good enough excuse. This was Dallas's to lose. Period.

Meanwhile the freakin' Giants shocked everyone by upsetting Green Bay in the NFC Championship and then, against all odds, completed their unlikely playoff run by eeking out a 17-14 win in the Super Bowl against the undefeated Patriots. I wasn't pulling for my bitter rivals to win that, although I'm not a Patriots fan anymore than I'm a Spurs fan. I'm just hoping my hometown Utah Jazz can be the Giants of the NBA this year.

So now that the Giants will suffer a post Super Bowl slip, the Cowboys look to bounce back in 2008 with a healthy T.O., perhaps a 100 percent return of Terry Glenn opposite him and a rookie RB in Felix Jones, taking place of the departed Julius Jones(now with the Seahawks) They Boy's will have an improved secondary if Pacman Jones can behave himself along with a Rookie CB Jenkins from Univ SOuth Florida. Marion Barber should only be better. Romo should be better and wiser from this(I'd prefer he cut ties with Jessica Simpson, though I don't blame her for the playoff choke)

My final feeling of the playoff debacle was that it stands as the most dissappointing loss for me as a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. Yes, I remember losing to Joe Montana and Dwight Clark when I was in fourth grade via "THE CATCH" But I knew that San Francisco was Dallas' equal and it was at Candlestick to boot. It was dissappointing to lose the following year to the Hated Redskins(Washington hadn't beaten Dallas in four years at that time) but that was at RFK and I knew that the Skins were on a roll and would be tough to beat if the Cowboys didn't play well(too many turnovers). Losing to San Francisco at the end of the 1994 season, ending the Cowboys'quest for a THREEPEAT was hard but I think the 49ers were a little bit better that time around. I don't think that the loss to Seattle the previous year to this choke even dissappointed me that much, because I figured the Cowboys were still building back up. They should have won but it didn't destroy me or anything. I just shrugged. But in 2007, given the fact that the Cowboys were the NO 1 seed and rarely goofed when they were the Number one seed in the NFC playoffs(only other time they lost as a NO 1 seed was in 1979 against the Rams-Staubach's last game)It wasn't supposed to happen and it was totally unexpected. The Giants could not beat the Cowboys without help from the Cowboys. And they got it and were able to escape with the upset. This has got to be the most dissappointing loss that I can think of for me, personally, as a Cowboys fan given the circumstances. And anything less than taking it all this next year will be a dissappointment and I believe that's what the players are saying as well, maybe not publicly.