Facing a No. 8 seed in the NBA playoffs is supposed to be a reward to the top team in a conference. Eight seeds are supposed to be grateful just to be included. They're supposed to be in awe of the competition. They're supposed to be young and inexperienced.
In other words, they're not supposed to be the Houston Rockets, one of the oldest, most experienced and confident teams in the league.But whether the Jazz like it or not, the Rockets will continue their recent playoff rivalry with Utah, beginning Thursday night in the Delta Center.
"They're not your typical eighth seed," said John Stockton. "We're going to have a heckuva series."
It should be, if past Jazz/Rockets playoff series are any indication. The teams have met four times in the postseason - including three times in the past four years.
Stockton and Hakeem Olajuwon were rookies - Karl Malone was still at Louisiana Tech - in the first playoff series between the two clubs. The Jazz won a memorable do-or-die Game 5 after back-up Jazz center Billy "The Whopper" Paultz egged Olajuwon into throwing a punch at him.
The teams didn't meet again in the playoffs until 1994, this time the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets won the best-of-7 series in five tough games. The teams met again the next year with the Jazz holding the homecourt advantage in a first-round series. But the Rockets sent the Jazz to an early vacation en route to their second consecutive world title.
"I feel that our (NBA championship) trophies, because we had to go through Utah, meant a heck of a lot more because of the respect I have for (the Jazz organization)," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
The Jazz and Rockets met again last season in the conference finals. The hard-fought six-game series culminated in Stockton's last second 3-point shot that has been replayed hundreds (thousands?) of times during the past 11 months in Utah - yet still sends tingles up the spines of Jazz fans.
And now the two teams that respect each other - without being intimidated at all - are prepared to go back at it. The Jazz are the heavy favorites. Utah won a league-best 62 games, which included a 4-0 mark against the Rockets. Houston finished a disappointing, injury-plagued year at 41-41. Eight seeds simply don't beat top seeds often, either. In fact, it's happened only once in league history.
However, with the Jazz trying to avoid overconfidence and the Rockets trying to put a positive spin on things, both sides talk like the series is a toss-up.
"Our guys have a lot of pride," said Tomjanovich. "We have some future Hall of Famers on the team, and they're not going to concede anything."
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan put it this way: "They are .500 because of injuries, they're not .500 because of a lack of talent. That's a huge difference."
It would be even a greater difference if the Rockets were completely healthy now. Charles Barkley has a hernia. He will try to play, but his minutes will likely be limited. Olajuwon hasn't been quite the same since midseason surgery on his left knee - and now his right knee is bothering him.
Still, Jazz centers Greg Foster, Greg Ostertag and Antoine Carr will have their hands full with Olajuwon.
While Foster will get the start, Ostertag - who had a solid series against the Rockets last year, but who has struggled and been through his own injury problems this year - should see quality playing time, as long as he produces.
"All year I let down the fans, I let down my teammates and I let down the coaches," said Ostertag. "Here is a golden opportunity to step up against a good team - a great team - with great players that you can't take lightly."
The defense Utah's centers play against Olajuwon will be critical in the series. When the Jazz have to clamp down on Olajuwon with a double team to stop him from scoring, he'll pass the ball back out to one of the several fine 3-point shooters on the Houston roster. The Rockets averaged just under seven treys per game, which was second in the league behind only Seattle.
"They've always been an inside-outside team," said Sloan. "You've got to deal with Olajuwon inside and deal with 3-point shooters out on the perimeter."
Utah, meanwhile, will look to Malone and Stockton to lead them - just as they have for the past 13 years.
The Jazz earned the homecourt advantage through the playoffs during a sometimes trying 82-game season. They know that advantage can be taken away quickly with a loss in the Delta Center on either Thursday or Saturday.
"Now we start from scratch," said Stockton. "The records are 0-0 . . . . It's do-or-die time."
SO, WE MEET AGAIN . . .
The Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets will meet in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
1985 First Round: Utah defeats Houston, 3-2.
1994 Western Conference Finals: Houston defeats Utah, 4-1.
1995 First Round: Houston defeats Utah, 3-2.
1997 Western Conference Finals: Utah defeats Houston, 4-2.
1998 First Round: No. 1 seed Utah vs. No. 8 seed Houston.