John Stockton says it isn't exactly that he forgets to shoot. It's just that he finds other people to do it for him. Individual scoring has never been a big priority with Stockton. At times, it hasn't appeared a priority at all. Against Philadelphia on Jan. 4, he took only six shots and finished with four points. Against the Lakers, Jan. 9, he made just 3 of 13 attempts. At San Antonio, Jan. 12, he took a mere five shots. He became so unselfish at one stretch that coach Jerry Sloan took him aside and asked him to shoot more.
"If you want to look at it (one) way, you can probably find 30 or 40 open shots in a game," Stockton said. "Sometimes I can get into where I just think other people have better shots. It doesn't hurt to call my attention to things."Although many may not have noticed, Stockton's scoring production has risen slightly lately. Going into January, he was averaging 15.4 points and making .484 of his attempts. Tuesday night in the Salt Palace, he turned in a 25-point performance. The previous game, it was 20 against Denver. In the Jazz's last seven games, Stockton has scored 20 or more points five times.
Scoring has never been what Stockton does best. Since turning pro, he has never averaged more than 17.2 points a game. (This year, with the addition of shooting sensation Jeff Malone, he is rolling along at a 16.3 clip.) Much of Stockton's attention involves setting up baskets - he leads the NBA in assists (14.2) and is second in steals (2.86).
But after a sub-par shooting performance in a few games - and seeing him pass off rather than shoot - teams occasionally began backing off Stockton, preferring to take their chances with him, rather than allow Malone to heat up.
"Strategically, if you don't take the shots, then nobody honors it," Stockton said.
Tuesday night against Atlanta, they had to honor him. Stockton totaled 25 points - combined with 19 assists - as the Jazz registered a comeback win. Among Stockton's contributions was a three-pointer with 3:56 to go in the game, giving the Jazz their first lead since the early going.
The rest of Stockton's baskets came from an impressive array of drives and medium-range jumpers.
Stockton's recent shooting successes came compliments of Jerry Sloan, who told him they needed his scoring help. "I never told John not to shoot," said Sloan. "We told him we want him to shoot."
Sloan said he even "got on" Stockton - a rare occurrence - during the Knicks game Jan. 23, in which Stockton went 7-for-20. "He took a quick shot there and I got on him a little bit. It probably got him a little out of sync. But I've never told him not to shoot," said Sloan.
Despite being below his career percentage so far this year - he's at a .495 clip, compared to .524 for his career - Stockton's contributions remain impressive. This week he was named to his third straight All-Star team.
"Sometimes you're your own worst critic," he said. "If you think you're doing everything right, then you have a tendency to stand pat."
Standing isn't likely something anyone will be doing Thursday night. The Jazz, 28-15, host the Portland Trail Blazers, 37-7, the team with the best record in the NBA. Having acquired six-time All-Star Walter Davis, the Blazers continue to build on an already formidable lineup.
"You look at their team and divide it into two teams, they could both compete very well in the league," said Sloan. "If you took their 10 guys and put five on a team, you'd have two pretty good teams."
True to form, Sloan is calling this contest just another game, yet at the same time acknowledging that the Blazers are a serious contender for the NBA title.
"Every game is important to us. They all count the same, so in that sense, it's another game. After this game, it's not like the season's over. It's not the end of the world, regardless of what happens. But if you can't get ready for a team like Portland, you probably don't deserve to play basketball."
Sloan said Tuesday's comeback against Atlanta reminded his team of a dearly held philosophy: "I've said so many times to the guys, 'Give yourselves a chance.' Often the talent level may be better (on the other team), but you need to give yourself a chance."
However, the Jazz's chances of beating Portland are diminished without starting guard Jeff Malone. Malone worked out on a treadmill at Wednesday's practice, but did not practice with the team. Trainers say it isn't likely Malone will play against the Trailblazers, due to a groin pull.