At 8:30 p.m. Monday night, the Delta Center clock read 12:00 of the 4th quarter. The Lakers held a slender 71-70 margin over the Jazz. And we were going to find out a lot about both the Lakers and the Jazz.
Every sports cliche ever uttered seemed appropriate. Gutcheck time. Clutch time. Money time. The bottom line: It was champion time.Champions win when trailing by 1 point in their own building with 12 minutes of basketball left, which is precisely what the Utah Jazz did Monday night. They seized control of the 4th quarter and simultaneously grabbed control of the Western Conference Finals.
Chicago is a nice place to visit in early June.
The final quarter started exactly as it should. Superstars doing superstar things. Shaq hit two buckets sandwiched between a Karl Malone 20-footer to give the Lakers a 3-point lead. Both big boys were making their presence felt.
Then the differences between the Jazz and Lakers began to appear.
- With Robert Horry wide open underneath the basket, Kobe Bryant forced a drive to the hoop ignoring his teammate. The Jazz grabbed the rebound and started a fast-break capped by a dynamic half-court bounce pass from Bryon Russell to Shandon Anderson. Jazz by 1.
- Three consecutive Laker turnovers later and a Karl Malone martial arts 19-foot jumper, plus a free throw, and the Jazz were in the midst of an 11-0 run and an 83-75 lead. The Jazz acting the part of champions. They turned up their defense another notch, they made hustle plays, and their superstar said climb aboard.
- At the 7:07 mark with the Lakers were doing their best "weeble's wobble but they don't fall down" impression, when the Jazz turned to the assassin - John Stockton - who'd been resting on the bench.
Stockton's ability to control the pace, tempo and development of a game more than any player in the NBA makes an 8-point lead virtually insurmountable. Stockton takes games by the throat and squeezes.
- With the Lakers back within 7, Stockton strips Robert Horry for another Laker turnover, one of their six in the 4th, and fires an outlet pass to Russell, who hits Malone for a hammer dunk. Jazz by 9 and the will to win is being felt.
- Impressively, Eddie Jones answers with a dagger of a 3, but before the Lakers gain any momentum, Stockton acts again. Derek Fischer replaces Nick Van Exel, and Stockton immediately beats his cold defender off the dribble going by him with the left hand for the easy lay-up. Jazz back up 8.
- The Lakers crawl back within 2 and with 2:40 left in the game. Jeff Hornacek then misses an open runner in the lane, and the Lakers; have a chance to tie. Cliche time again. Up 2 points at home with 2:40 to play, and you harbor thoughts of hanging a championship banner - it's time to find a way to win.
Whistle! Offensive foul Los Angeles. And it's Stockton who's drawing the charge.
The door is still propped open, and the Jazz need to slam it shut, and a four-play pick and roll sequence will do just that.
1. Two-and-a-half minutes left and Stockton comes fore court and the play call is for the pick and roll left side extended. Stockton, guarded by Fischer, gets the pick from Malone, guarded by Shaq. Shaq shows on the pick, attempting to stop Stockton's left to right lane penetration. Stockton flips the ball back to a flaring Malone who hits a falling away 20 footer. Jazz by 4.
2. Next possession, here it comes again. The simple beauty of the pick and roll is that when the defense takes something away, they must give up something in return. This is the essence of Jazz basketball. Again working from the left side of the court Stockton comes off a Malone pick, this time Malone's man stays with Malone preventing a repeat of the last possession. Stockton takes the opportunity for a short open jumper in the lane. Jazz back up by 4.
3. The Jazz prove to be human as Stockton turns it over on their next possession. With the ball loose on the floor, Malone grabs Derek Fischer. Fischer heads to the line with a chance to tie. Fischer hits one of two free throws. Jazz by 1.
4. Clinging to the slender lead and looking to grab total control of the series, the Jazz return to their bread and butter play. This time it's Stockton and Carr. Stockton comes off the Carr pick, and not wanting to get burned again by Stockton in the middle of the lane, Shaq steps into the middle leaving Antoine Carr open for an 18 footer. Jazz by 3 with 1:00 left.
The Jazz stop Shaq on the next possession. Game, set, series to the Jazz
It was a champion win. Something the Jazz are doing a lot recently. In fact, the Jazz have been frightenly Bulls-like over the past two weeks.
The clutch return in Game 4 vs. San Antonio after the embarrassment of Game 3's performance was something you'd expect from the Bulls.
Winning Game 5 vs. San Antonio when the tank was on empty but understanding the importance of cutting the series short. Classic Bulls.
And last night, withstanding the Lakers' best shot while grabbing control of the series is exactly what champions do.