Dennis Rodman and Madonna won't be around to keep things interesting like the first time the Utah Jazz and the San Antonio
Spurs met in the playoffs four years ago. Yet, somehow, that doesn't mean this year's best-of-seven series will be without intrigue.There wasn't a whole lot of love lost between these two Midwest Division rivals to begin with, but a single Karl Malone elbow that connected with David Robinson's head turned up the heat even more.
Malone's elbow sending Robinson to the hospital was viewed as an unfortunate accident in Utah.
In San Antonio it was seen as a malicious act of violence. Suffice it to say the Mailman will not be given a warm welcome in the Alamodome. Robinson's teammates, meanwhile, got roasted by the locals for not coming to his defense with more authority. The Spurs, perhaps trying to shake the label of being soft, have since gotten into tussles with the Lakers and Suns.
Expect a physical, defensive battle that could go either way.
There are certain things the Jazz need to do to advance to the Western Conference finals. Namely:
- Get Malone to take Robinson out of the game: No, this is not to be taken literally - as in the April 8 elbow incident. Malone needs to take Robinson out in a figurative sense by playing tenacious defense, out-scoring and out-rebounding him. The Mailman had the better of the Admiral in both the 1994 and 1996 series between these teams. Not coincidentally, the Jazz won both times.
- Take advantage of their superior bench: Jerry Sloan has been going 10 or 11 players deep. He received strong play from the substitutes against the Rockets in the first round. Big guys like Greg Ostertag and Antoine Carr will be especially important against the Spurs' three 7-footers. San Antonio, meanwhile, has been going with primarily a seven or eight-man rotation.
- Make sure Jeff Hornacek gets it going: Hornacek struggled through most of the Rocket series before finally breaking out with a 7-for-9 shooting performance for 15 points in Game 5. He matches up better against Vinny Del Negro and Jaren Jackson than he did against Clyde Drexler and Mario Elie.
- Take advantage of playoff experience by playing with composure down the stretch: Utah has been to the NBA Finals. They've been to the finals of the Western Conference four times in the past six years. The Spurs have had far less success in the postseason. Both Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich had no playoff experience until a few days ago. This should give the Jazz an edge.
- Protect the home turf: It's simple, really. If the Jazz win each game played in the Delta Center - even if they get blown away in every game in the Alamodome - they'll win the series.
Then again, there are reasons the Jazz may be in trouble, including:
- John Stockton's aching back: He claims he's fine. But he hasn't been practicing much and his play in the series makes you wonder. It certainly made Charles Barkley wonder. "I think there is something wrong with John Stockton," opined Sir Charles. "I think he's probably hurt and hiding it."
- Complacency: The Jazz, for some odd reason, didn't play at playoff level during the first 3 1/2 games of the opening round. They finally picked it up in the second half of Game 4 and in the series finale, but if they go back to their old ways even for a game or two against the Spurs, they'll have the whole summer to think about it.
- The Spurs just have too much size and talent: With Duncan and Robinson, the Spurs have the most potent one-two inside punch in the league. Can the combination of Gregs (Ostertag and Foster) and an old Dawg (Antoine Carr) get the job done?
- Avery Johnson is on fire: The Spurs point guard has often been dared to shoot by the Jazz in previous games, but that might not be such a good idea now. He was deadly against the Suns in the first round, averaging a team-high 20.5 points and shooting 64.7 percent from the field.
- The Spurs should be fresher: The teams will play four games in six days. The Jazz certainly expended more energy in the first round by having to play five games. The Spurs downed the Suns in four and had nearly a week to rest up for Round 2.