If ever there was a team that caused an entire community to have a mental block, it's the Phoenix Suns. For the last 12 months, the Salt Lake Valley shuddered at the thought of the Jazz meeting the Suns again in the playoffs. Give us your Lakers, your Trail Blazers, your Spurs, but please, pul-e-e-e-e-ze, not Phoenix.
Guess who's coming to dinner? The whole gang's here: Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Tom Chambers, Jeff Hornacek. One year after the Jazz's demise in the playoffs - at the hands of you-know-who - the Suns appear to be better than ever. Game 1 begins at 8 p.m. and will be televised by KSTU (Channel 13)."They've all hurt us," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "They haven't lost anything from last year. If anything, I'd say they're better."
This, of course, is no secret. Although they are missing streak-shooting Eddie Johnson, who had more than one great day against the Jazz, they ably replaced him with Xavier McDaniel. He is younger, stronger, faster and, on a consistent basis, more dangerous.
Predictably, the Jazz aren't buying all the negative talk about the Suns. They point out that they split four games with the Suns this year and that the teams have simply reversed roles this year. A year ago the Jazz had 55 wins and the home court advantage. This year it's Phoenix's advantage.
For all the paranoia about the Suns, the series did go all five games last year. Kevin Johnson's 15-footer with two seconds left provided the difference.
"You'd think the way people talk that they'd beaten us three straight, by 20 points every game," said Jazz guard Delaney Rudd. "It's just that that we had the misfortune of one play that ended it all."
"As a team we have a little different perspective (than many fans)," said center Mark Eaton. "Phoenix is a team we match up better with than Golden State. They don't do a lot of trick things. You pretty much know what you'll get where and when you play them."
Although they may know what to expect, stopping the Suns is another matter. In the two Phoenix wins overUtah, the Suns won by 23 and 14 points. Utah won by one and four points.
"We know how tough an assignment we have," said Sloan. "They're a hell of a team. But we don't want to be awed by them. We just have to go play."
The Suns present several serious problems for anyone, first of them being Kevin Johnson. Johnson's penetration against the Jazz often results in layups for either him or a nearby teammate. In their four games this year, Johnson averaged 31 points and just over 10 assists.
"They do a great job of getting people easy baskets underneath," said Sloan. "We have to stop their penetration and their layups."
Second on the Jazz agenda is slowing the Suns' rate of offensive rebounds. The Jazz have been hurt all year by allowing other teams inside.
"We have to be able to get down in the trenches and see what we're made of," said Sloan.
Dangerous as the Suns are, they are just coming off a series of injuries earlier this month. Johnson missed Monday's workouts due to allergies and a continued sore hamstring. Dan Majerle missed Tuesday's practice due to a sore right thigh. Tom Chambers has a bad back but has been playing.
Meanwhile, the Suns must find a way to stop Karl Malone, who has averaged 29.5 points and 11 rebounds a game.
As opposed to last year, the Jazz come in as the underdog. "Some people say we play better as the underdog," Sloan said earlier in April. "I don't know. Maybe we do."
"When you're an underdog," said Rudd, "you fight harder. You want to prove it to yourself and everyone else that you shouldn't have been an underdog in the first place. But then you just go play and don't worry. They're good, but we're good, also."
Winning a game or two in the Valley of the Sun, however imposing, isn't an impossibility, said Sloan. "We're not going to Saudi Arabia," he said, "we're going to Phoenix."