HOUSTON - WHILE THE Utah Jazz were working their tattoos off during the regular season, hoping to gain the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, they could never have had this mind. They could never have dreamed they'd need it so quickly. They couldn't have figured they'd actually have to play the H (home court) card so soon.
But now that they're here, they're sounding like John Denver. Home should indeed seem like a long lost friend.Friday night at the Compaq Center, the Jazz sent their first-round playoff series back to Salt Lake City with a 93-71 win over the Houston Rockets. Now it's down to one game, at home on Sunday, where the Jazz went 36-5 this season. It's back to the house where the Doc sits under the basket waving his inflatable woman. Where Suds wisecracks from the seats down low and the "Jazzman" is just another crazy guy with purple on his face. Where Larry Miller folds his arms and scowls and trash-talks the opponents, and the woman in purple brings her lucky pig to the Jazz practices.
It's back to the House that Stock and Karl built - but Larry paid for out of his own pocket. Back to the reason they wanted to have the best record in the NBA in the first place.
"We lost it (the home court advantage) and got it back," said Jazz center Greg Foster. "It's gonna be a barn-burner on Sunday."
While being home for Game 5 of this first-round series might seem good news to the Jazz, it isn't necessarily great news. If you're a believer in destiny, or home court advantage, it's over now. The Rockets can take their injuries and Dream Team medals and go home now. The Jazz have won. Playing the Jazz in a one-game scenario at the Delta Center is like playing the slots in Las Vegas. The odds are heavily against you. That's why they played like madmen in the regular season - in the event that something like this would happen. It just happened sooner than they expected.
At the same time, it's also the place where the Jazz lost in the first game of the series. It' where they fell in the first round to the Rockets in 1995. It's the scene of one of the most heartbreaking moments in Jazz history; the place where on a Sunday afternoon three years, ago David Benoit thought he was skeet shooting instead of jump shooting down the stretch.
If you're the nervous type, this is the worst sort of scenario: one game with everything on the line. It's the kind of game that could give you heartburn for a month. This series is as close as it gets. In their all-time playoff series, the Jazz trail 13-12.
If you're not the nervous type, it's an interesting case study in two teams loaded with aging superstars, trying once more for a championship ring.
If Friday night was any indication, the Jazz are back on track. In a series in which they were supposed to run the old, injured Rockets into the ground. Finally, they did it on Friday.
It didn't come, however, until after a lethargic first half for the Jazz. After falling behind by 11 early in the third quarter, the Jazz went on an 11-2 run to pull within two. They took the lead for good with 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
"That was one the ugliest games we've played in the first half and one of the prettiest in the second half," said Foster.
And for the first time, the Rockets were looking the part of the worn down old underdogs. Charles Barkley was on the sidelines with an injured arm, coupled with his chronic hernia problem. Hakeem Olajuwon was missing shots in the middle. Clyde Drexler missing with awkward jump shots from the outside.
Meanwhile, the Jazz extended their lead to 24 points in the fourth quarter. They did most of it with the curious concoction of Howard Eisley, Shandon Anderson, Chris Morris, Antoine Carr and Greg Ostertag on the court. After the lead got up to 11, coach Jerry Sloan sent in the veterans to finish it up.
Now the Jazz are in a position they didn't expect, and a dangerous one at that. True, the Rockets are old and tired and running out of speed. At the same time, until Friday the Jazz failed to put them away when they had their chance.
"It's gonna be a dogfight," said Houston's Charles Barkley.
So the series has come down to this. If the Jazz don't win, they will have no real excuses. No amount of injuries can account for losing. Houston has injuries, too. Already the Jazz have found out why they expended so much energy in the regular season. Now they get to decide if it was worth the trouble.