AS THE JAZZ try to finish off the Phoenix Suns tonight in the Salt Palace, and the Phoenix Suns try to force a series-deciding Game 5 Saturday in Phoenix, both teams agree the aggressiveness meter is going to be turned up yet another notch.
Considering the first three games, that's hard to imagine. Take Game 3 Tuesday night in the Salt Palace, for example. The referees were letting them play. They were only calling the felonies. And still, there were 56 fouls called.Most of the chaos hovered around Karl Malone, the Jazz's macho-mailman. Malone has never made a secret about the fact that, non-contact sport notwithstanding, he likes to play basketball with a physical nature. Like his role model, Randy "Macho Man" Savage.
Playoff basketball, when the referees tend to back off and let the fittest survive, is his kind of basketball. The refs try to keep homicide to a minimum and let it go at that. That makes Malone smile.
"I like the physical game," he said Wednesday as the Jazz and Suns rested up for their next bout. "It gets me going. Men are made down there (in the paint). Boys shouldn't come in."
You can tell the boys, according to Malone, because they flop. At the slightest touch, they hit the floor, begging the officials to give the guy who slugged them at least five years hard labor without parole.
"Boys flop, and I hate that," Malone said. "If you're going to foul, take it like a man. The worst thing there is is to foul out on a guy floppin'."
In this Suns-Jazz series, there hasn't been much flopping going on around the Mailman. Just a lot of fouls. In Tuesday's game, more than half of the Suns' 29 fouls were the result of people trying to guard Malone, man to man. Whenever one Suns defender would get too many fouls, another would take his shot. By the end of the game, five Suns had taken a turn, including Tom Chambers, Andrew Lang, Mark West, Dan Majerle and Kurt Rambis. Between them, they had 18 fouls at the end of the game. Xavier McDaniel also had a foul when he switched onto Malone and tried to stop him on the way to the hoop.
The sign in the Salt Palace that said "Neither Rain Nor Snow Nor the Suns Can Stop the Mailman" could also have said "Neither Chambers Nor Lang Nor West Nor Majerle Nor Rambis Can Stop the Mailman."
Malone said he could never remember so many players on his case in a single game. "I remember four once, against Portland," he said. "When you think about it, five guys with 30 fouls between them, that's a lot of fouls to give."
It's also a lot of trips to the line for Malone - he made eight of nine free throws Tuesday - and a lineup problem for Suns Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, who kept throwing players at Malone like hockey lines Tuesday, keeping any one player from fouling out.
West, the Suns center, had five fouls Tuesday, which was more than the four he picked up in game one and the three he picked up in game two, both of which were in Phoenix. He said he saw a pattern in that.
"We got the calls there, he (Malone) gets the calls here," said West.
West paid Malone a compliment, calling him, "a smart player who has developed a nice fadeaway jump shot." He said the Suns use the wave approach against Malone to try to keep him offguard by a variety of defensive tactics, as well as to not get any one person in foul trouble.
"He's got such good hands," said West, "and he's got that good jump shot now. He's not easy to stop. (Tom) Chambers tries to get around him and go for steals. I try to put my body on him and make him go out and hit the jump shot. The trouble is, he's nailing the shot."
Says Malone, "West gives me a lot of trouble. He's big and he's strong."
During games, however, there is little evidence of any of this mutual admiration. Malone stakes his ground with his 256 pounds, and West, Chambers, et al, stake their ground with their 250 pounds or so, and then they push and shove each other until John Stockton eventually throws Malone the ball. At which point the battle really begins.
Watch it tonight for a drama within a drama. Malone said, "I expect it will be even more physical than ever." The Suns' Majerle said, "We can't be pushed around anymore. We've got to go out and play exactly like they do." This is playoff aggression at its highest peak all right. At stake is the next round of the playoffs. When Malone says, "no way we want to go back to Phoenix," he means the Jazz, not the Suns.