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.

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