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.
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