WITH THE UTAH-SAN Antonio playoff series moving to the Delta Center for Tuesday's game, it appears the Jazz are back on course. They are winning again, and their plan to claim the first championship in franchise history remains alive. Unless, of course, they lose. Then they can expect to hear more grumbling about whether they actually intend to win the championship or just die from lack of oxygen to their brains.
Certainly the Jazz have had their share of struggles in this year's playoffs. For people with eyes on winning a title, they have a strange way of showing it. Sunday's win over the Spurs notwithstanding, the Jazz have stumbled regularly in the playoffs. They lost to Houston by 13 points in the first game of the postseason. Jazz fans - and the Jazz themselves, for that matter - couldn't have been more surprised if Elvis had sung the national anthem. There was a live band rocking outside the building. There were fireworks inside. "Bear" the mascot rode his Harley on the court, spewing noxious fumes as it went (the Harley, not Bear). They spotlighted the Jazz's Midwest Division championship banner. Donny Osmond was in town cheering the Jazz on, and the place was, well, goin' coconuts.So how did the Jazz respond? They laid an egg.
That was followed by a loss in Houston in Game 3, which seemed to indicate the Jazz aren't in championship form this year.
But the first-round series was just a precursor to their recent problems. Though they took a 2-0 series lead over the Spurs to start the second round, it wasn't convincing. They won Game 1 when Tim Duncan missed a buzzer shot. They won the second game in overtime. They lost Game 3 by tying the league record for fewest points in a playoff game.
Would the real Utah Jazz please stand up?
So what is the story with the Jazz? They've already lost playoff games by 13 and 22 points. They struggled against an injured and aging Houston, and with the exception of Sunday's game, they've done the same against a talented but shallow San Antonio. Is this a raft headed for a waterfall? Does losing big and meeting resistance all the way mean they can't win it all?
If the Jazz do go on the win the NBA title, despite looking less than magnificent every night, they won't be the first. Losing big en route to the title is a common occurence. If history has proven anything, it's that winning a championship usually takes a thick skin and a bad memory. Teams that win titles can end up feeling like Wile E. Coyote on a bad day. They can usually count on getting walked on, run over and slapped around before finally getting their rings.
The 1995 NBA champion Houston Rockets set the standard in terms of jerking their fans around. They lost three games in the playoffs by 22 or more points. They lost by 13 to Utah in the first round, by 22 and 24 points to Phoenix in the second round and by 22 to San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals.
It wasn't like they were going, "Yup. We just lost by Roseanne's dress size and we're still goin' all the way!" The Rockets didn't have their opponents trembling in fear. If anything, they let the opposition get overconfident. Yet they hung in there and won it all.
Although Chicago's 1993 playoff team didn't lose by any big margins, Da Bulls managed to scare Da devil out of their fans. They fell behind 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals before coming back to win the next four over New York. Even the supremely confident Michael Jordan had to be wondering if they had the right material for a title. As it turned out, they did.
These days hardly anyone gets by unscathed. The 1992 Bulls lost by 11, 14 (twice) and 26 points, en route to the title. The 1990 Pistons lost by 18 in the Eastern finals to Chicago but came back to win by 19 in the conference title game, then won the NBA championship. The 1988 Lakers won the title but not before losing by 12 twice, 14 once, 25 once and 28 once. The 1985 champion Lakers suffered losses of 22 and 34 points in the playoffs. The 1984 Celtics lost to L.A. by 33 points but won the championship nonetheless.
While the Jazz would prefer winning a championship with 15 straight victories, losing is a fact of life in the playoffs.
So if the Jazz lose by 20 Tuesday, don't be surprised. Stranger things have happened. It doesn't mean they aren't going to win the series and it doesn't mean they won't win the title. It just means they're playing one of the best teams in the world. And like everything in life, nobody gets through without a fair share of bruises.