In the course of six games, the Utah Jazz have changed more than Michael Jackson's face.
They've changed from 30-point losers to 35-point victors.They've changed from confused bumblers who couldn't deal with the Sonics' trapping defense to confident attackers who sneer at any attempt to trap.
They've changed from heavy underdogs to serious contenders for the Western Conference crown and a trip to the NBA Finals.
Don't expect them to express any glee over the transformation, however, or the fact they've advanced farther than any Jazz team ever. Even after Thursday night's lopsided 118-83 victory over the SuperSonics at the Delta Center, which tied this series at 3-3, the Jazz maintained the attitude of the longshot, the dark horse, the team that wasn't supposed to play into June.
Maybe, just maybe, if Sunday's Game 7 in Seattle ends with an arena-full of disappointed fans, the Jazz will crack a smile. Just for a moment.
"There's no tomorrow for us," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, deadpan and sober in the postgame interview room. "We've been in this situation twice and we're in it again."
The speculation the last couple of days has been that the Sonics might crack under the pressure of two straight years of disappointing playoff ousters and their failure to close out the series at home on Tuesday. While they didn't do a complete crumble, there were signs of hairline fractures - such as point guard Gary Payton scoring a mere 10 points, and shooting
guard Hersey Hawkins going 0-for-8 from the field, and the team as a whole shooting 40.9 percent.
But as Seattle coach George Karl pointed out, it probably wouldn't have mattered if his team had played terrific Thursday, because the Jazz would have been better.
"I saw this game against Portland, I saw it against San Antonio," Karl said, referring to previous Jazz playoff blowouts. "I didn't think they could do it against us. This was the best I've seen them play in a long time.
"I could sit here and criticize my team for a lot of things tonight, but the truth is Utah was a great basketball team tonight."
The numbers support his case: Utah shot 60.3 percent from the field, made 15 steals, outscored Seattle 50-30 in the paint, 15-4 on second-chance points, 29-13 on fast-break opportunities.
Several Jazzmen had huge games, including Karl Malone and Jeff Hornacek, but the big difference may have been John Stockton. Hampered by an ailing elbow and a tender hamstring, the Jazz point guard nevertheless posted personal series highs of 14 points and 12 assists, with just one turnover. More importantly, he pushed the ball - and his teammates - up the floor.
"He was more aggressive today," Hornacek said. "He was focused all day. You could see it at shootaround."
Payton, meanwhile, who until this game was the front-runner for series MVP honors, was not finding the open lanes to the basket he'd enjoyed in previous games. He'd gotten several layups on Tuesday by driving through the heart of the Jazz defense, which Sloan basically told his players he didn't want to see anymore. Every time Payton went into the lane Thursday, there were several Jazzmen there to greet him, which usually resulted in him being forced to pass. He finished with seven assists, but he also had five turnovers.
Another key for the Jazz was finally getting something out of two guys who had disappeared in this series - starters Felton Spencer and Chris Morris. Spencer was much more active defensively (four blocks, seven rebounds) and stayed out of foul trouble, and Morris hit a couple shots in the opening minutes of the first quarter that forced the Sonics to start guarding him. Morris also had six rebounds and four assists.
"Tonight we had everybody play hard," Sloan noted.
Perhaps as a result, the Jazz never trailed. They jumped out to a 12-0 lead in the first four minutes, behind six points from Malone and four from Morris. The only thing that kept the Sonics close in that first quarter was free throws; they shot 13 to Utah's two, thanks to a 9-1 foul differential.
At the end of the first period, in which they shot a phenomenal 72.7 percent, the Jazz led 35-22. Midway through the second quarter Utah led 52-30, and then Seattle made its only run of the night. Over the final five minutes of the half, the Sonics outscored the Jazz 17-7 to get within 12 at the half.
"I knew they were going to make a run," said Jazz center Greg Foster. "It did kind of worry me that they had momentum going into the (second) half."
Not to worry. The Sonics never mounted a serious threat in the third period. The closest they got was 10, one minute into the half, but the Jazz scored six straight points and steadily pulled away. The nearest Seattle got in the fourth quarter was 17.
Malone was, again, a monster. The Mailman, who dedicated the game to a young friend who is terminally ill, made 13 of 22 shots for 32 points, with 10 rebounds, seven assists. Hornacek totaled 23 points. Bryon Russell made five of six shots for 12 points.
Wasted in the Sonics' thrashing was a strong game from Shawn Kemp. He made 10 of 15 shots for 26 points, with 14 rebounds (though he did have five turnovers). Detlef Schrempf finally escaped the Jazz defenders long enough to score 16 points. Sam Perkins scored 14.