AT LAST THE old soldiers could hold out no longer. The Houston Rockets - who had battled age, fatigue, injury and gravity through a tough five-game series - were finally gone. There would be no more cries to believe, no more references to "Clutch City."
They had risen above their infirmities to take it to a fifth game Sunday at the Delta Center. The stage was set for the big upset, the inspiring story. But reality has a way of ruining great storylines, and so it was the Jazz who unleashed a furious up-tempo attack and rode it to an 84-70 win.Greg Ostertag put back a missed shot and Bryon Russell landed a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter after the Rockets had pulled within three. Ostertag blocked three shots in a single possession. Shandon Anderson stole a pass. Russell hit Ostertag for a slam. The talk of rabbits hunting the hunter and revisiting the 1995 playoff series was just that after all - talk. The Jazz had chased the Rockets off the court. Finally, the Jazz could get on with their plan to return to the NBA Finals.
"Every time they closed to within one or two points, we knuckled down and played a little harder," said forward Russell. "And it worked."
In getting a major boost from its young players at the end of Game 4 in Houston, and again in Game 5 in Salt Lake City, the Jazz proved what everyone already knows: Getting old is a bummer. When Mick Jagger sang "What a drag it is getting old!" he never thought it would happen to him. Now he's a grandfather. And while the Rolling Stones still pack them in at stadiums and concert halls, his leaps aren't as high as they once were, just like Hakeem Olajuwon. Like Olajuwon, though he still has the fire, he doesn't have the springs.
It's a kids' world after all.
By eliminating the Rockets on Sunday, the Jazz showed that being young and healthy is better than old and hurt, any day. Though the Rockets had 6 percent of the 50 greatest players in basketball history, they didn't have a spring in their step or a bounce in their walk. Their backs and knees ached and their bursitis was acting up. They wanted to win the series, but what they really needed was a cup of warm milk and a blanket.
"In this business, you soon realize no one cares what you did in this game," said Malone. "You've just got to play your game and forget all the other stuff."
With that in mind on Sunday, the Jazz paid little mind to the resumes of Houston's Clyde Drexler and Olajuwon. They didn't care about their championship rings or All-Star appointments. They didn't even bother to feel bad that Charles Barkley, another Dream Team veteran, was out with a torn triceps muscle. The plan was to run them into the ground.
Coach Jerry Sloan told his players to wear the Rockets out, and the Jazz began that way, jumping to an 11-point lead in the first quarter. Though the Jazz's game began to turn ragtag soon after, they saw early that their plan was working. They had the Rockets backing up.
The Rockets, of course, didn't give up. Though they never led, they rallied several times. In the third quarter they trailed by just one, in the fourth quarter by three. But Ostertag was swatting shots and Russell chasing down loose balls and rebounding and Anderson and Howard Eisley reminding the Rockets what was like to be 25. Beaten but unbowed, the Rockets could do nothing to stop the onslaught.
Karl Malone, whose body belies his age, took care of the heavy lifting with 31 points and 15 rebounds while the younger players took care of the little details.
That the Jazz would be around for Sunday's game wasn't certain a couple of days earlier. Trailing 2-1 in the series, they were left in a do-or-die situation in Houston on Friday. But the young guns led the charge in the second half and the Jazz prevailed. They each had important plays on Sunday as well. Whatever the Rockets did, the Jazz did better. They matched the Rockets Dream Teamer for Dream Teamer, but they also had youth, speed and energy - three attributes that are hard to beat under any circumstances.
"The younger guys play a big part in our success," said Malone. "You can praise them for what they do, but they get paid just like everyone else. They're supposed to do that. It's their job."
Indeed it is. For 31/2 games the outcome of the series was in doubt, until the young players got rolling. Houston had important names, but the Jazz had the important fuel.
Although veterans such as Malone and Jeff Hornacek backed the Rockets to the edge, it was the young and restless who pushed them over. They proved what the movie industry decided years ago: nothing beats young. They showed that while experience has its rewards, winning basketball games isn't necessarily one of them.