The sound wasn't good when John Stockton's head hit the floor. It sounded like a bowling ball dropping off the return. Nineteen-thousand, nine-hundred and eleven people winced in unison and went, "Ooooh!" He lay on his back, momentarily stunned.
Stockton had been all over San Antonio's David Robinson, who had gathered a rebound in the fourth quarter of Tuesday night's playoff game. When Robinson turned, he caught Stockton with an elbow, bloodying his lip. Stockton fell backward, his head bouncing when he landed.But after a few seconds he was back up. The trainer tried to help him to the bench by grasping his arm, but Stockton jerked away. He swung past a referee to complain about being called for a foul. He sat at a low simmer through a timeout, with gauze in his mouth, but when play resumed he was back.
"At that point, there's no way he's coming out," said assistant coach Phil Johnson. "Other than if he's knocked out."
The Jazz eliminated San Antonio in the Western Conference sefinals Tuesday night at the Delta Center, winning the series 4-1. They pushed, shoved, picked, dived and elbowed their way past the Spurs' Triple Towers to make it to the Western Conference Finals for the fifth time in seven years. Now they move on to play the Los Angeles Lakers, beginning Saturday. On the one hand, they're playing a team they beat only once in four times in the regular season. On the other hand, at least they know they will only have to deal with one giant, not three.
For a brief time, though, the Jazz didn't have to worry about the Lakers at all. The L.A.-Seattle game wasn't over, but theirs was. They had a short time to savor the moment and wait for the results to come in, knowing they had beaten the Spurs on a night when both teams were fatigued from playing five games in eight days.
"Tough guys," said assistant coach Gordon Chiesa. "Tough games."
For all the talk of playoff basketball being a ballet or symphony, in other ways it's closer to combat. It's smacking someone to the floor and stepping across his body as he's down. It's rearranging someone's dental work for free. That's why when the game resumed, and Stockton still hadn't left the court, he immediately got back in Robinson's face, swollen lip notwithstanding. Tough guys. Tough games.
And so as the Spurs go home and try to sort out what happened to their dreams again this season, they will find it comes down to one thing: toughness. That's why the Jazz have pounded the Spurs out of the playoffs in three of the past five years. In 1994 the Jazz met the Spurs for the first time in playoff history and sent them home in four games. Dennis Rodman complained the Spurs needed to be tougher - and for once he was right. Robinson and Sean Elliott are as silky-smooth as any two players in the world, but if things get nasty you're going to want Stockton and Karl Malone.
In 1996 the Jazz sent the Spurs home from the conference semifinals in six games. Same complaint: Robinson was too soft. Now this year. If you didn't know better you'd think the Jazz had the Spurs completely psyched out. You'd think the Spurs were intimidated. You'd think they wanted their mommies.
San Antonio, it should be noted, is a model team. If you were picking a Boy Scout Dream Team, you'd start with a half-dozen Spurs. They are gracious in defeat and even courageous. Never in the series did they stop trying. The problem is - and they bristle at this suggestion - they don't have enough tough. Although Robinson got outside himself long enough in Game 3 to give Karl Malone a soft, retaliatory shove, that was about it. By Tuesday he was back to his old, proper self. He's the first guy you want as your diplomat or clergyman but not the first guy you want in the NBA playoffs.
"The playoffs separate - literally, really - the men from the boys," said Chiesa. "And the ability to withstand punishment is absolutely paramount."
Thus, when it came down to the final game of the series, the Jazz were the ones withstanding - and administering - the punishment. They were calling the Spurs out. Both teams were tired, but only one was interested in going to war. So when the Jazz's Greg Foster got in Robinson's face, and then Will Perdue's, drawing a technical, he walked away growling. And when Malone grappled with Tim Duncan, arms locked, he went straight for the basket as soon as he got the ball. And when Howard Eisley saw his chance, he drove straight for the basket even though there were two seven-foot centers in the way. The Jazz were in a no-retreat mode.
To their credit, the Spurs' didn't blame the loss on Duncan's ankle sprain. The Jazz had injuries, too. Malone has been playing all year with an injured finger on his shooting hand that will need surgical repair. Stockton has been bothered by a bad back, and only he can say whether that accounts for his below-normal playoff production.
But that was all beside the point. As the Jazz often say, excuses are excuses. And tough is tough.