Jazz vs. Golden State, the NBA's most intriguing first-round playoff series, hit the Salt Palace Thursday, offering clues on all kinds of subjects: Just what are Don Nelson's big secrets? What's better, scoring or defense? Is this the start of a seven-week Jazz playoff run, or are they in for an early exit? Is the Mailman talking yet?
All this and more, was in Game 1 of the best-of-five series.Clearly, interest in the Jazz's playoff possibilities is at an all-time high. Only two years ago, the Jazz failed to sell out any of three playoff games against the Warriors. This year, following their best regular season ever and while memories are still fresh of them taking the champion Lakers to seven games last spring, look at what's happening: The Jazz sold the 2,500 available tickets for Games 1 and 2 in two hours. This week, upwards of 500 homes subscribed to Jazz Cable in order to watch the first two games, and an unnamed fan spent $50,000 to erect a 10-foot, electrical Jazz logo in front of the Salt Palace.
"It's scary sometimes," admits Jazz forward Thurl Bailey, "when you think of what people on the outside think, versus what you know can happen."
Almost anything could happen in this series, even if Nelson, the clever Golden State coach, insists that the Warriors winning would take ". . . maybe a miracle." Nelson closed practices in Oakland this week and will not reveal his starting lineup until game time. The issue is whether he'll use Ralph Sampson, or surround 6-foot-8 Larry Smith with four guard-sized players.
Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, meanwhile, refuses to be caught up in Nellie's game. After hedging early in the week, he announced Wednesday that he'll go with his usual lineup, bringing Thurl Bailey off the bench and not worrying about what matchup trouble that causes his team. "They've still got to guard us," Sloan reasoned.
Obviously, the Jazz may have to adjust during the game if the Warriors' small lineup proves troublesome. In that case, forward Chris Mullin likes the Warriors' chances. "I don't see them as having the option to go small," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The way their team is, they have to go big. Some teams don't have to do that - they can go either way. Seattle, for instance, can go both ways. But Utah? I don't think so."
No doubt, the Warriors will try to keep the Jazz in a running game, to overcome the size factor and score more than the 99.7 points a game the Jazz allow. They'll also be loose, with little to lose in only their second playoff appearance in 12 years. "We're just a nice, young team that overachieved," says Nelson.
The heat is on the Jazz, the choice of many NBA experts to reach the Finals. "It's going to be much tougher this year," observes veteran forward Marc Iavaroni. "Last year, we snuck up on some people."
Says Mark Eaton, "There's a confidence this year. It's not the same attitude that we're going to jump up and surprise anybody; we just know we have to go out and do the job."
Sloan has tried all week to keep a business-as-usual approach, keeping practices open and not especially long, while allowing the Jazz to concentrate on nothing beyond Game 1. After three practice days, John Stockton said, "We're tired of playing against each other. We're tired of seeing each other. I see us as itching to get started."
Malone is trying his own playoff strategy, cutting off interviews and making no promises of talking in the future. Asked about postgame interviews, he said, "Depends on the mood."
The Mailman is still apparently unhappy about not playing last weekend with a slightly sprained ankle, breaking his streak of 321 games. "This was the first time I never had any say-so in an injury matter, and it upset me," he had said. He's also taking the stance he took in Portland between Games 1 and 2 of the first-round series last April. After the Game 1 loss, he promised silence for the rest of the series, but was talking again after delivering 37 points in a Game 2 victory.
For the record, the Warriors' Larry Smith was not talking Wednesday, either - but Nelson has a team rule about granting interviews after games. Malone is on his own, and the Jazz seem to approve of his playoff methods. "Every year, Karl has something like that," said Sloan. "That's what he's trying to do to get himself ready to go again. He doesn't have to talk to me; he just has to play for me."
Said Bailey, "You have to let Karl be Karl."
And the Jazz have to play the Warriors, before they can consider Phoenix, the Lakers or anybody else.