So the NBA playoffs arrive, and here we have the Utah Jazz once again trying to survive the first round. Why? For the, uh, pleasure of going against the Los Angeles Lakers. "We have no chance," says Coach Frank Layden, looking ahead.
No matter what awaits them, the Jazz could use the credibility a playoff series victory would bring. And imagine this: Laker Coach Pat Riley is already saying, "If there's one team I'd rather not meet, it's Utah."The Jazz meet Portland Saturday in Memorial Coliseum in Game 2 of their best-of-five series. Two teams that need a playoff win to be taken
seriously in the NBA are taking decidedly different approaches to the playoffs. Portland Coach Mike Schuler, once a Bobby Knight assistant, is buckling down with long practices and film sessions. "He gets very serious this week," said guard Clyde Dexler. Said Schuler of his players, "I owe it to thse people to do that."
Then there's Layden, whose scheduled session Monday was rained out. The players and coaches had planned an in-house golf tournament to lighten things up but rain postponed the outing until next Monday. Layden did close part of Tuesday's practice, just to create a little mystery.
The Jazz will be ready, but Layden is generally doing all he can to keep things light. "This is the gravy . . . The pressure is over," he said of making the playoffs. "Getting to the dance is the key. The pressure is great now, but the disapointments are greater. I don't put expectations on the players. Our fans do it and our management does it, but I don't."
After closing the regular season with five straight wins, the Jazz enter the playoffs with momentum that was missing last spring when they lost their last three games and then lost to Golden State in the playoffs. Of course, they won the first two games of that series. "We ended without momentum," mused Layden.
Having lost to Dallas and Golden State in the first round the last two years, when they were also in the same bracket with the Lakers, the Jazz want to cash in on their 47-35 season, the best in franchise history. Same story for the Blazers, knocked out by Denver and Houston in the last two first rounds, but coming off a 53-29 season.
The questions in this series are: Can the Blazers win two games in a row? Can the Jazz win on the road? The Blazers lost Game 1 at home to Houston last April and were eliminated in four games.
The Jazz did win back-to-back home games last season for the first time in their playoff history but, obviously, they'll have to break through on the road to win the series. They won their last four regular-season road games, but are 3-12 on the road in playoff games, losing seven in a row since their famous comeback in Game 5 in Houston in 1985.
The series winner will move on to a best-of-seven series with the winner of the Lakers-San Antonio formality and, no offense, but Riley would rather not play in the Salt Palace. For the last two years, a Laker effort has resulted in his postgame tirades. "Our guys have a hard time there," he told the Los Angeles Times, "and some of my greatest moments have come there."
The important people in this series? Drexler and the Jazz's Karl Malone. Drexler improved so much this season that he actually aroused MVP talk around the league, shooting better than 50 percent and averaging 27.0 points. In a flashback to the '86 Dallas series when he successfully took on Rolando Blackman, Jazz guard Bobby Hansen draws Drexler who scored 42 and 35 points against the Jazz in a six-day stretch this month.
"This is a different intensity you'll see," promised Hansen, who was bothered by a bruised hip in those two games. "All my thoughts are on stopping him and containing him, once he gets out on the break. He's improved his jump shot this year, and that makes him dangerous. I just have to move up on him early in the game and funnel him inside to the big guy."
The Blazers had no more success with Malone than the Jazz did with Drexler, the Mailman scoring a career-high 41 at Portland in February. But Malone did not react well to the job of carrying the Jazz offense in the '87 playoffs, shooting 42 percent in five games and having trouble with double- and triple-teaming defenses. No doubt, Schuler, who brought Don Nelson's defense from Milwaukee to Portland, will come up with special anti-Mailman strategy for the playoffs.
Asked if he had anything left after a draining regular season, Malone said, "This just defines that we are professional athletes, and if you can't get yourself ready for the playoffs, it's definitely a problem."
The Jazz will have Kelly Tripucka available for the series. After being hospitalized with an illness that caused him to mix the last six games of the season, Tripucka returned to practice Monday and Tuesday and Layden plans to play him behind Hansen.
"He's got playoff experience and he shoots the ball well," Layden said of Tripucka. "If he feels all right, we'll go with him. It just makes sense."
Rookie Bart Kofoed filled in for Tripucka and has some success guarding Clyde Drexler in his second meeting, and could be aavailable for defensive purposes. Mostly because of a calf injury, Tripucka played only 49 games this season, 13 after the All-Star break.
John Stockton is receiving daily treatment for his strained hamstring, but says the injury is "not a factor."