Depending on who you're listening to — national pundits, Lakers fans, Jerry Sloan — the Utah Jazz rank somewhere on the underdog scale between David, Rudy and Daniel LaRusso.
Beating Jack Nicholson's team might not be considered the biggest upset in sports history, but many will have you believe it'd fall somewhere between next to and impossible.
Having lost seven of nine games, sporting a woeful track record on the road, plummeting to the No. 8 seed and going up against a talented, red-hot team that has big-time star power on multiple levels, this free-falling franchise from Utah could sure use a script writer or two — and if they play defense, all the better — to help develop one of those touchy-feely underdog success stories with the Hollywood-like ending.
Then again, if Deron Williams thinks the Jazz upsetting the loaded Lakers would, in his words, "shock the world," who knows what kind of global reverberations it'd take to find anybody in Tinsel Town to make a movie about their Purple and Gold-clad heroes getting knocked off by the little guys who don't have Kobe Bryant on their roster.
There's little disputing the Jazz are faced against all sorts of odds. Of course, Jazz fans desperately wanting something longer than a sweep can refer to Buster Douglas vs. Mike Tyson type of odds, and you might remember what happened to the heavy favorite in that flop of a fight.
The Jazz, however, have acted like they're relishing their role — even if many consider them the Generals going up against the Globetrotters.
"There's not too many that probably would give us a chance and that's fine," Williams said. "We'll take being the underdogs. ...
"You definitely use it as motivation," he added. "Every time you turn on the TV, you're going to see a 'Sweep' or a 'Lakers in five, Lakers in six' (prediction). We can use that and turn it around and believe in each other and go out there and get it done."
That unfathomable upset would make for quite the heart-warming story — at least in Utah — now, wouldn't it?
Fortunately for the Jazz and their fans, there is some history that all hope — and the first-round series before it begins — is not yet lost:RULON GARDNER DEFEATS THE RUSSIAN DUDE: Gardner epitomizes the true American rags-to-win-gold-medal-by-beating-supposedly-unconquerable-Russian-to-riches success story. He grew up in poor circumstances in a rural town (Afton, Wyo., not Salt Lake, but same diff to snooty L.A. types), kept working hard, and eventually shocked everyone, first by body-slamming a "Siberian Bear" on the wrestling mat and, second, by appearing in the epic silver-screen sensation "The R.M." Many Jazz guys — save perhaps Andrei Kirilenko and Kyrylo Fesenko — can be inspired by the Utah resident's story.
The Jazz, it seems, can certainly relate to Gardner's pre-match predicament. Alexander Karelin hadn't lost in more than a decade; the Jazz (48-34) haven't won on the 65-17 Lakers' home court in nine tries.
"We have nothing to lose. They're the No. 1 seed. Nobody expects them to lose any games. Everybody expects them to sweep every team until they get to the finals," Jazz guard Ronnie Brewer said. "So, we've just got to go out there and play, play relaxed, and the pressure's on them."
SUPER BOWL III: The thing we learned from the New York Jets' win over the Baltimore Colts is this: Sandbagging it — like Sloan saying things look "pretty bleak" and talking up the Lakers as being a near-unbeatable powerful force — is not the way to go. Take it from Broadway Joe: Doing underwear ads is your golden ticket to success. Seriously, now, before you can hawk whitey-tighties, you must boldly call your shot.
Though the Jazz gave no such motivating material for the Lakers' bulletin board, they boldly predicted that they believe this might not be as one-sided as many are predicting.
"As long as we believe in each other in the locker room and we believe that we can beat 'em," Williams said, "that's all that really matters."
So, does that optimistic feeling really exist in a locker room that seems divided because of occasional selfish play in the Jazz's slump?
"There's a lot of belief," Williams insisted. "We know we're a good team. We haven't played like one lately, but we know if we can play our best basketball, we come out and put our minds to it, we can beat anybody in this league."
Like Namath and the guy from the Men's Wearhouse, he guarantees that much.
MIRACLE ON ICE: You know this odds-overcoming sports story (but don't remind Utah's players from the former Soviet Union). Kurt Russell coached a bunch of outmatched college-age kids from the U.S., who didn't even know hockey existed until two weeks before the Olympics, and they amazingly banded together to beat the U.S.S.R.'s invincible Dreamcicle Team en route to a gold medal. Ooooh. Still brings chills. Now, Jazz fans, just imagine the spine-tingling sensation that'll happen when Craig Bolerjack makes a certain-to-be-famous call late in Game 7 with the upset-in-the-making series on the line: "Buckle up if you believe in miracles!"
The Jazz certainly do — and not just the kind that happen on ice. Though only three of 50 No. 8s have toppled the top seeds in NBA history, Utah players and coaches have repeatedly brought up how Golden State upended Dallas, which had the league's best record, in 2007.
"Anything is possible," Brewer said.
Indeed. Even Sloan backed off proclaiming his team's playoff outlook was bleak, which he said after Utah's loss Tuesday at L.A.
"You go back and look at Golden State beating Dallas. You could see that mushroom after the first game," Sloan said, referring to the Warriors' victory in Game 1 that sparked them to a stunning seven-game series win. "Once that happens, that's what makes this business so exciting and interesting.
"Regardless what people say, read or write, all that stuff really doesn't matter — it's what you do out there and try to make it work," Sloan added. "I've seen a lot of crazy things transpire in this league since I've been in it."
DAVID VS. GOLIATH: Valuable basketball lessons can be learned from this biblical tale. Like: When facing an intimidating big man — take Goliath-look-alike Pau Gasol, for instance — don't panic as you throw the rock toward the target; keep in mind L.A. coach Phil Jackson's first name is short for Philistine; and, of course, be heady but don't try to play defense or block shots with your forehead.
But what's it going to take to topple these NBA giants?
"A lot of determination," Williams said. "A lot of effort, a lot of energy, a lot of hustle, a lot of the little things as well as playing our best basketball, playing our A game and having everybody show up."
And if that doesn't work, perhaps search for the sling with the sharpest stone.
Carlos Boozer says there will be no shying away from the challenge.
"We knew for us to go to the Finals we had to go through the Lakers at some point," the Jazz forward said. "We got them off the bat."
ROCKY (FOR SURE PARTS 1 AND 4, MAYBE 2, 3 AND 6 BUT DEFINITELY NOT 5): Kyle Korver loves the one where the undersized Italian Stallion broke heavily favored Andrei Kirilenko in Russia. But for team unity purposes, think instead about the original when Rocky ate raw eggs, punched sides of beef, ran up stairs and knocked out the Lakers in Game 6 with a mean uppercut. Yo! The Jazz even used to have an Adrian in their family. And they definitely have a Mickey (think Jerry Sloan).
Despite the circumstances and a season of injuries and inconsistency, the Jazz say they're not afraid to stand toe-to-toe in the ring with the heavily favored defending Western Conference champs.
"That's the fun thing to do is to be the underdog," said Korver, admitting he used to play the "Rocky IV" soundtrack while shooting hoops in his backyard.
"Everybody thinks we're underdogs, but we know how good we can be," Jazz forward Paul Millsap said. "We know we had a few losses that we should've won, we had a few injuries that hurt our team, but we know what we're capable of doing."
(Cue the "Rocky" anthem.)
KARATE KID: Coach Sloan likes hard workers. So does Mr. Miyagi. Mr. Miyagi makes Danielson wax his car for practice; Sloan makes his players wax his tractor at practice. OK, maybe not, but the Kid's bullying nemesis is from L.A., like, yep, the Lakers. Catching the drift here? Here's the (uh-hum) kicker: When the going gets tough, make like a crane and kick the Kobe guy (or was that Cobra Kai?) in the chops. That's metaphorically speaking, of course.
The Jazz, once considered contenders in the West, aren't going into this match-up thinking they're sacrificial lambs, that's for sure.
"Our back's against the walls, but we're not going to give up. We're not going to fold the tent," Brewer said. "We're confident. They're going to be confident, but we feel like we're just as talented as them."
Just what Mr. Miyagi would want to hear.
RUDY/LORD OF THE RINGS: If a tiny Hobbit dude (3-foot-tall Sean Astin) can save Middle-Earth and make it onto Notre Dame's celebrated football team (just play along, please, the movie refers to the olden days), then just imagine the possibilities for an NBA team that has a tiny hoopster dude (5-9-3/4 Brevin Knight).
The Jazz are acting somewhat relieved that the pressure will be on the Lakers to not lose instead of on the Jazz.
Now Utah can just go "have fun," Knight said. "We have no pressure. If we're supposed to be swept, we're supposed to get killed, then they've got to go out there and prove that."
"There's no pressure," Sloan added. "You don't have to play basketball and think that the whole world is coming down on top of you because you're supposed to be the winner. The pressure is they have to beat us." And save the precious ring talk, please.
CINDERELLA: Anyone have a spare glass slipper in a size 171/2? And don't worry about the season turning into a pumpkin just yet, the clock still hasn't struck midnight. Huh? OK, try this: Pretend Kobe Bryant is the Wicked Stepmother. Hmm. What do Cinderella stories have to do with sports anyway?
Who knows, but Sloan believes his team will not come out looking like the ugly stepsisters.
"I think we've got some guys that will represent themselves very well," Sloan said. "And that's what you look for."
BAD NEWS BEARS: Not the Billy Bob Thornton one, we're talking about the original. Honestly, this might have worked better had the Jazz been playing Houston, seeing as that's where the Bears worked their magic vs. the Yankees. But it's fun to imagine the reaction of huge Lakers' fan Tatum O'Neal reading this entry — she was the team's ace pitcher. Plus, Kyle Korver's hair kinda resembles Kelly Leak's and characters in the movie do lots of swearing — and so does a certain Hall-of-Fame coach.
"We're not going into this situation like, 'Oh, we're going to get swept. We're going to go on vacation early,'" Brewer said. "We feel like, 'Hey, we're going to compete. We're going to try to get a game on the road.' "
So, bring on the Yankees — or Lakers — and forget recent woes.
"Now we're in the playoffs, so it's a new season," Boozer said. "We're looking at a new outlook on it. We're fresh and ready to go."
BLACK BEAUTY: OK, a touching tale about an English horse might be a stretch. Unless, of course, you consider this: The Jazz could be — prepare the rim shot, cue the canned laughter and get ready to slap your knee — a playoff dark horse. Ba-da-ching!
"I'm looking forward to it," Brewer added, "and I think we're going to step up to the challenge."
In other words, some might say it's time to buckle up and believe. After all, just remember how it turned out for David, Rudy and Daniel LaRusso.