Game 70 of the Jazz season offered all kinds of intrigue: Were the Detroit Pistons as mean and tough as everybody says? Was the Jazz defense really the league's best? What would happen if these teams met in the NBA Finals?
There was all of those answers and more Wednesday night, when two of the NBA's hottest teams met in the Salt Palace. Opening a western road trip, the Pistons had won 14 of the last 15 games. The Jazz, winners of 12 straight at home, are 16-5 since the All-Star break, making this one of the more long-awaited matchups of the year locally - the game will be televised but was still an early sellout.Already, the Jazz have heard enough about the Bad Boys of the East. "They aren't as physical as everyone is led to believe," says Mark Eaton. "They do a lot of cheap-shot stuff, but as far as strength, we have the edge on them."
"They have that nickname, and they try to live up to that, which, I guess, helps them win games," noted Thurl Bailey. "It's like the Raiders used to be in football - other teams are intimidated, going in."
No doubt, Jazz-Pistons II will be another rock 'em-sock 'em battle between two strong defenses.
By the numbers, the Pistons' defense is better than the '87-88 Jazz's, the NBA's best of the decade. The thing is, the current Jazz defense is even better - their opponents' .432 field-goal shooting is still the lowest in the league since Milwaukee's in 1973-74.
The Pistons out-defensed the Jazz in suburban Detroit March 1 but had trouble scoring themselves - except for reserve guard Vinnie Johnson, who had 34 points in a 96-85 victory. Detroit held the Jazz to 14 fourth-quarter points.
What's impressive about the Pistons' defense is that they manage without a shot-blocking center, although center Bill Laimbeer is third in the NBA in defensive rebounding. Active players like forward Dennis Rodman and guard Joe Dumars make up the difference.
What's behind Detroit's defense? "As much as anything, it's their offense," says John Stockton. "They have guys who can score, and when you do that, you tend to stop teams from fast-breaking and getting easy baskets. They're also a very veteran ballclub, and they play smart defensively."
The Jazz are also benefiting from having several players with four and five years' experience in Jerry Sloan's defensive system. The chief improvement is rebounding - as recently as this season, former coach Frank Layden was still calling the Jazz "the worst rebounding team in history," but that's no longer true. Karl Malone is fifth and Mark Eaton seventh among NBA rebounders; Boston in 1985-86 was the last team to have two top 10 rebounders. Overall, the Jazz rebound slightly more than half of all missed shots - offensive and defensive - and rank in the middle of the rebounding stats.
What's more Stockton leads the league in steals, Eaton is No. 2 in blocked shots and Malone and Eaton are Nos. 4 and 5 in defensive rebounding.