With a sly smile, Karl "the Mailman" Malone said he had a message he wanted sent to the Lakers.
"We're going back to L.A.," the Utah Jazz forward proclaimed in Salt Lake City Wednesday afternoon. "That's a guarantee."In another time and in another place, Malone's words would be dismissed as so much bravado, the last gasp of a would-be challenger on the verge of being knocked through the ropes by the Lakers, who lead their Western Conference semifinal series, 3 games to 2, and could advance to the next round with a win here Thursday night.
But although Michael Cooper's game-winning shot with 7 seconds left in the Lakers' thrilling 111-109 Game 5 win may indeed have been a death rattle for Utah, Malone and his Jazz teammates heard a different tune. To them, the Lakers - on their own court, with a houseful of celebrities and a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter - still were behind by a point with 12 seconds remaining and needed Cooper to bail them out.
Back in the Salt Palace, where the teams split Games 3 and 4, that may not be enough, Malone said.
"I'm really, really in a good state of mind because that was the best they can play, the best I've ever seen them play, and we were still up by one," Malone said. "They needed a miracle. How many miracles have they got?
"I know how they're thinking. Everybody counted us out. People already got the Boston-Laker caps and shirts made. That's interesting, but it's not over yet.
"I'll tell you what - they've got to beat us, and they haven't done it yet."
So what we have here are dueling guarantees - Coach Pat Riley's promise that the Lakers will repeat as National Basketball Association champions, Malone's that they're not going to get out of Utah with the win that would take them one step further toward that goal. And Malone already has backed up one guarantee: In the first round, after the Jazz split two games in Portland, Malone swore that the Jazz would win the next two at home to eliminate the Trail Blazers. He delivered on time.
"I've just been looking at each player they've got and each player we've got," Malone said. "Point guard to point guard, shooting guard to shooting guard, center to center, forwards to forwards.
"How far are we behind, if we're behind at all? Not far at all."
What Jazz player could have dared say that after losing a 110-91 laugher to the Lakers in Game 1?
Said guard Bobby Hansen: "After that game we said, `Wait a minute. That can't be the Utah Jazz the way we want to be remembered as. Let's go out fighting.'
"We were reading all those one-liners in the L.A. papers. It gets you so enraged. We couldn't even go out wearing a Jazz T-shirt. That's changed now."
And the Jazz wonder if the outcome of Tuesday's game might have been changed if 7-foot-4 center Mark Eaton hadn't fouled out with more than half of the fourth quarter still to be played.
Utah Coach Frank Layden was so afraid he'd say something bad about the officiating - not one foul was called against the Lakers in the third quarter - that he closed the Jazz dressing room to the media after the game. That earned the Utah franchise a hefty fine, as team president David Checketts learned after talking with the league office Wednesday morning.
"I was just standing there like this and (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) stumbles out of bounds," Eaton said, describing his fifth personal foul, which he got with 7 minutes 24 seconds left to play. "And how about the shot that Mychal Thompson took, which hit the bottom of the backboard, and I was standing there with my hands up?
"To beat the Lakers at the Forum, you've got to be ahead by 10 or 12 points with a couple of minutes to go, because everything in the last couple of minutes is going to go their way.
"It's a reality."
Utah's John Stockton, meanwhile, has been something just short of unreal. In eclipsing another pretty good point guard, one Earvin Johnson, Stockton tied Johnson's playoff record for assists with 24, scored 23 points, and made five steals, including two in the last two minutes. He also got his hand on the ball just before Magic passed it to Cooper for the game-winning shot.
Asked if he could take satisfaction in playing a starring role in what Laker General Manager Jerry West called one of the greatest games he'd ever seen, Stockton said: "You can find satisfaction in anything if you want to. The world's full of satisfied losers. The thing that matters is where you choose to draw the line at what you're satisfied with.
"This is the playoffs. You can throw out all the stats, you can throw the season out the window, nothing else matters. It comes down to whether you win or lose - who cares what your numbers were?"