For all you doubters still laboring under the impression that these are the same old Utah Jazz, those kings of close-but-no-cigar, it's time to wake up and smell the Bulls.
As in Chicago Bulls, the Jazz's next (and final) playoff opponent, after an improbable, magical, comeback finish that finished the Houston Rockets, 103-100, Thursday night at The Summit.John Stockton's buzzer-beating, 26-foot three-pointer - capping a rally from 10 points down with three minutes left, not to mention a brilliant performance for the Jazz's veteran point guard - clinched Utah's first Western Conference Championship and pushed the Jazz into the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. The Jazz and Bulls open their best-of-seven series on Sunday in Chicago.
If the Bulls think they're facing the Miami Heat of the West, they're in for a surprise.
Just ask the Houston Rockets fans, who did their raucous best to lift their team into a Game 7 matchup at the Delta Center, only to be left stunned - no, shocked - by the Jazz's furious comeback and Stockton's heartstopping shot.
Even the Jazz were left breathless by the wild finish.
"I don't think I can describe it," Stockton said. "It was a tremendous feeling."
"We wanted to win here," Karl Malone said. "It's more satisfying to win on the road because we haven't won any conference finals on the road and everybody's been talking about that."
The Jazz had just 2.8 seconds to make their game-winning play, after Clyde Drexler's 16-foot bank shot was rebounded by Malone, who quickly called timeout. As the teams lined up after the timeout, Houston guard Sedale Threatt said he'd take the first guard through. That was Jeff Hornacek, leaving Drexler on the much-smaller Stockton. Hornacek had told Russell to fake a pass to him, which he did, freezing the defenders for a moment. Malone set a pick on Drexler, allowing Russell to pass to an undefended Stockton, some 35 feet from the basket. Stockton dribbled once and fired, as Charles Barkley rushed at him.
Stockton had a hard time remembering details of the play.
"It's a fog to me," Stockton said . "I can't describe it.
Usually for the last play, everyone goes helter-skelter. They go to the wrong spots. They don't do the right thing. But everyone did what they were supposed to."
"Coach said to set a pick for Stock," Malone said. "I was able to get pretty good meat on him (Drexler), and Stock made a great shot. It was the best pick I set in my life."
"As he (Stockton) was dribbling it, I knew the game was over," Hornacek said. "It's just a feeling you get. He makes that shot all the time. It was automatic."
"As soon as I saw he was wide open and he took that little dribble, it was money," said Jazz forward Antoine Carr. "That was pure cash."
There was nothing automatic, however, about the way the Jazz battled back in the closing minutes. Down by 13 in the final period and still trailing by 10, 96-86, after two Drexler free throws with 2:59 left, a seventh game in Salt Lake City appeared a certainty.
"Coach is always saying, `Never give up, never give up,' " Stockton said. "We were down . . . and he convinced us to keep playing."
The comeback started with a three-pointer by Russell. Jazz center Greg Ostertag then stuffed a shot by Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon, and Stockton made a pair of free throws to cut the lead to five. During an ensuing Rockets timeout, the Houston mascot, Turbo, came out to center court to lead a chant where fans on one side of the arena scream "Houston," which fans on the other side respond to with "Rockets." But the fans just sat there; few even stood up and even fewer were willing to chant.
"I think that's when we knew we could win the game," said Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek. "We knew in the end they would be tight in a close game. We had the luxury of a seventh game, but they didn't."
After the timeout Barkley made two foul shots, but Russell hit another three, and after a missed three-pointer by Houston's Mario Elie, Stockton took Threatt to the hoop for a layup, cutting the Rockets lead to two. Stockton then stole the ball from Drexler in traffic, went down to the other end and again burned Threatt, tying the contest at 98 with 1:03 remaining.
On the Rockets' next possession, they missed three shots before Barkley was fouled by Ostertag, sending the Jazz center to the bench with his sixth personal. Barkley made both free throws, but Stockton came right back with a six-foot runner in the lane to tie again.
After a Houston timeout, Drexler took the ball with 22 seconds left and the shot clock off. He dribbled out near halfcourt until there were about eight seconds left, then he attempted to drive on Russell. Converged on by several Jazz players, Drexler launched a wild bank shot that Malone rebounded, giving Utah the opportunity to win.
"They got up by 11 points and we didn't give up," Malone said. "Each guy on this team did something special to give us an opportunity. What an awesome feeling."
Stockton led the Jazz with 25 points and 13 assists, but every Jazz starter - for the first time in the postseason - scored in double figures. Malone totaled 24 points, 11 boards; Russell hit six of eight shots for 15 points; Hornacek scored 18; and Ostertag had a monster game - 16 points, 14 rebounds, a big role in limiting Olajuwon to a mere 16 points.
"Ostertag grew up in a hurry tonight," Malone said.
Like a lot of Jazz fans, Ostertag said he was more excited for veterans Malone and Stockton than for himself.
"It was one of the greatest feelings to give Karl a big hug tonight, knowing we'd gotten him and John to the Finals," he said. "That was awesome."
Utah at Chicago, 5:30 p.m.
Utah at Chicago, 7 p.m.
Chicago at Utah, 7 p.m.
Sunday, June 8
Chicago at Utah, 5:30 p.m.
Wednesday, June 11
*Chicago at Utah, 7 p.m.
Friday, June 13
*Utah at Chicago, 7 p.m.
Sunday, June 15
*Utah at Chicago, 5:30 p.m.
All games on Ch. 5 (NBC)