"David Benoit for three."
Clank.It happened not once, but twice late in Game 5 the last time the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets met in the first-round of the NBA playoffs, back in 1995.
Benoit's misses came during a 10-0 Rockets run late in the fourth quarter that caused an entire state to cry in its green Jello. Just like that, the thousands of "It's Our Year" signs the Jazz had printed up became, well, both useless and ironic.
Benoit has been gone for a couple of years and the Rockets' roster has only four hold-overs, but Jazz fans learned an important lesson that spring: Winning 60 games and having homecourt advantage doesn't mean you'll get out of the first round.
Even so, the Jazz will beat the Rockets as long as they:
- Hold serve on their homecourt: The Jazz worked hard all season to get the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Utah knows well that as long as it wins every home game from here on, it will not only get past the Rockets but will win the NBA title.
- Get dominating performances out of John Stockton: Utah's veteran point guard abused Maloney in the Western Conference finals last season. Stockton also scored his season high of 24 points against Houston on Christmas Day. The point guard battle is one area where the Jazz should have a substantial edge.
- Control Hakeem Olajuwon: Houston's center may not be completely back from his mid-season knee injury, but he is still the biggest concern to the Jazz. Utah will run a number of guys at Olajuwon - the Gregs (Foster and Ostertag), Antoine Carr and even Malone - to try to keep "The Dream" from keeping them awake at nights.
- Get the ball to Karl Malone: The Mailman shoots 53 percent from the field, so the more shots he takes the better. He'll be going up against either a hurting Charles Barkley or aging Kevin Willis most of the time. Malone's no spring chicken himself, but he seems to just get better with age. The Jazz should be able to exploit that matchup for 25 to 35 points per night. Watch for Malone to get 10 points or more each game in fast-break situations when he leaves his defender in the dust.
- Get contributions from the bench: The Jazz need the bench - Russell, Anderson, Eisley and Ostertag in particular - to come up big. Ostertag's job is primarily defense and rebounding. Eisley needs to get others involved in the offense. Anderson and Russell need to take some of the scoring load off Malone and Hornacek.
Then again, the Rockets could make it a long off-season for the Jazz for these reasons:
- A trio of experienced superstars: Sure, Houston's injury-plagued regular season was a disappointment. But that doesn't take away the fact the Rockets have three of the 50 greatest players of all-time in Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Bark-ley and Clyde Drexler on their roster.
- Best-of-5 series: Utah would like its chances even better if it were a best-of-seven format. Being a best-of-five series means an upset is more likely - especially if the Rockets can steal one of the first two games in the Delta Center. Just like that, Utah's homecourt advantage would be gone and Houston could wrap up the series with a pair of home wins.
- Houston's ready to explode: Nobody thought the Rockets would be in this position - as the eighth seed in the conference - when the season began. They haven't played well this year, but they showed the ability to turn it up for the playoffs on their championship run in 1994-95 when they were a No. 6 seed.
Rudy Tomjanovich: Tomjanovich is much like Utah's Jerry Sloan. They are both former hard-nosed players who have earned the respect of their veteran-rich teams. Both are underappreciated as basketball strategists. Both know exactly what the other team will be trying to do.
- Eddie Johnson: No matter what uniform he's worn, Johnson has killed the Jazz during his long career. Jazz fans shudder when they hear his name and remember vividly his game-winning 3-point bomb in Game 5 of last year's conference finals and his 37-point night in the Delta Center just six weeks ago.