THE UTAH JAZZ, as pumped up as George Foreman after yesterday's nationally televised win over the Lakers, head to Oakland today with a Midwest Division title on the line. One win over the Golden State Warriors stands between them and, at the worst, a tie with San Antonio for the Midwest championship. Which would be fine with them. Getting a tie will be like kissing Miss America.
In the event of a Jazz-Spurs tie, the Jazz get to take title distinction into the playoffs. That means an opening-round playoff series versus the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference, which happens to be none other than the Golden State Warriors.If Golden State wins today, San Antonio (assuming a Spurs win today over Dallas) would open the playoffs against Golden State and the Jazz would open against Phoenix.
Since today's game has all of this riding on it, a lot of Jazz fans are nervous. But unnecessarily nervous. For two reasons, a Jazz victory today is almost a foregone conclusion. One, the Jazz are on an uncommon roll as the regular season comes to a close, and Two, it stands to reason that Golden State would prefer playing the Jazz over the Spurs.
This is the same Golden State franchise that met the Jazz in the 1987 playoffs and again in the 1989 playoffs. On both occasions the Jazz had the homecourt advantage and were favored. On both occasions, the Warriors won.
Golden State's personnel picture has changed considerably since '89, but Don Nelson is still the coach, and is still remembered for his small lineup innovation that undercut the Jazz and swept them out of the '89 playoffs in three straight games.
Nelson and his team have the unusual situation today of hand-picking their playoff opponent.
The Jazz won't be the only ones in the Oakland Coliseum Arena hoping they win today.
If Kevin Pritchard, Paul Mokeski, Jim Peterson and Les Jepsen - guys who usually make sure the end of the Warriors bench doesn't come off the ground - are today's starters, don't be surprised.
Actually, Nelson will probably be more subtle than that. His "Big Three" of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin will start, but they won't last long. In general, the Warriors' behavior should be a lot like the Lakers' yesterday in the Salt Palace. Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Byron Scott all started against the Jazz, but they played only half the game, and didn't play at all in the last quarter, not even after the Lakers' reserves had cut the Jazz's advantage to four points with five minutes still to play.
The Lakers had little incentive to win against the Jazz. Their playoff seeding was locked in place well before tipoff. Their only motivations were pride and the chance to watch the Jazz squirm.
The Jazz, on the other hand, needed this game desperately - and they played like it. Karl Malone, in particular, played like a man with a title on his mind. Not only did the Mailman score 30 points and dish out six assists, he also got into a shoving match with Lakers Coach Mike Dunleavy.
Player-coach shoving matches don't happen every day in the NBA, but when Dunleavy stepped in front of Malone at 6:55 of the third quarter, push came to shove.
Malone had just untangled himself from a pileup on the floor in front of the Laker bench with L.A.'s 7-foot-1 Vlade Divac. In the process, he gave Divac a prod or two that didn't sit well with the Lakers sitting at courtside, who voiced their opinion. At that point, a timeout was called, and Malone, seeking justice, approached the Lakers' bench.
Dunleavy stood up and walked out on the floor. He put a hand on the 256-pound Malone's chest, and Malone shoved the coach.
"He's pretty formidable," said Dunleavy. "But that's never stopped me before from taking a charge."
"The way I saw it he was coming after somebody on our bench and I'm the only guy allowed on the floor so I tried to keep him back," said Dunleavy, who said he didn't know just which Laker Malone was interested in talking to.
"The name he used, it could have been any of them," he said. "He didn't use his proper name."
Malone said the person he wanted to talk to was Laker assistant coach Randy Pfund. "I know him, and I wanted to hear what he had to say," said Malone.
"There are no hard feelings," added Malone. "I have the utmost respect for their coach. It's just one of those things that happen in the heat of battle. We needed to win this game, whatever it took."
"Emotions always ride high when these two teams play," said the Lakers' Magic Johnson, who had a ringside seat. "A little pushing match really didn't mean anything."
Especially when the game didn't mean anything. Not to the Lakers. They won't see the Jazz again unless they get past the Houston Rockets in their first-round playoff series, and the Jazz get past Golden State. Then, the little pushing match might mean something.
But that's also a distant concern right now for the Jazz. Their immediate concern is to beat the Warriors today so they can play the Warriors later this week. And the Warriors will be rooting for them to do it. As crazy as that sounds, the playoffs will probably get crazier.