As he dressed in the locker room of the Seattle Center Coliseum Tuesday night, the Jazz's Darrell Griffith could finally relax, safe in the knowledge that he wouldn't
have to face Seattle's Dale Ellis again until late March.That's right. He'll have Michael Jordan Thursday night in the Salt Palace and Magic Johnson Friday night in the Forum, but no Ellis until March 21. The week's assignment is enough to make teammate Karl Malone say, "I'm glad I'm a power forward."
It's also enough to make Bobby Hansen, the proud defensive specialist, make very sure he's healthy before trying to come back from a broken left hand. "I don't want to go against those guys at 50 percent," says Hansen, who will plan his return following X-rays Thursday.
The funny thing is, Griffith is acting like he's almost up to the challenge of Michael and Magic. While Ellis did score 31 in Seattle's 109-102 victory, he racked up most of his points on a collection of tips, layups free throws and three-pointers. Only twice did he leave Griffith futilely chasing him by doing the trademark Ellis move, pinwheeling around screens for jumpers.
"Anytime you keep those guys below 30, you've done a nice job," notes Hansen. "You've got a lot to gain from that if you can hold 'em down."
Ever since Ellis scorched him and the Jazz for 46 on Opening Night, Griffith has played more than respectable D, which goes against his reputation. "All scorers have that stigma, of not playing defense," Griffith smiles. "I know it was something I needed to work on and I'm working at it."
I always used to say the difference between, say, Adrian Dantley and Griffith was this: Dantley can play defense, but doesn't always want to; Griffith tries to, but can't. Even though he'll never be accused of impersonating Jerry Sloan, Griffith's changing that impression this season, showing better defensiveness awareness and technique.
Non-Ellis starting guards - including the likes of Clyde Drexler and Alvin Robertson - have averaged only 14 points against Griffith in 10 games. Hansen has noticed, from his uncomfortable vantage point. "He's concentrating on it," Hansen noted. "He's making a serious effort to go out and play both ends of the floor."
On Opening Night, Hansen probably had thoughts of sawing off his cast at halftime and going after Ellis before catching himself. "What can you do on the bench?" he mused later. "I had a business suit on."
He was more suitably dressed in jeans a sweater Tuesday, making like an NFL backup quarterback and keeping a chart on the sidelines in the phase of his recovery that comes just before playing. But Griffith will be on his own tonight, and if Jazz followers are encouraged by Jordan's having to play a back-to-back game, too, consider Jordan's Salt Palace record for back-to-backs:
- Dec. 3, 1986: After playing an overtime game at Seattle the night before, Jordan scores 45.
- Dec. 2, 1987: After playing a down-to-the-wire game at Golden State, Jordan scores 47.
He's back again after a tough game at Golden State, and only another NBA guard can appreciate the Ellis-Jordan-Johnson sequence. "I face the same problem myself," said Ellis.
"That's the NBA," shrugs Griffith. "The way I look at it is, those players have to guard me, too."
That's Griff, who did have have 23 against Ellis. He also delivered 40 points in Chicago Stadium in March 1985 in Jordan's rookie year and, probably, Griffith's most memorable complete game. Griffith and Jordan both missed the two Jazz-Bulls games the following season with broken feet and, because Hansen has become a factor, they have never gone head to head for 40 minutes since.
They will tonight, and Griffith can be assured that no matter what happens, he'll have a well-deserved day off between Jordan and Magic. He and the Jazz will fly to Los Angeles Thursday afternoon and, that night, somebody else will playing in the Forum, having to guard Wayne Gretzky.