The Los Angeles Lakers were still talking about a comeback after the game, but their hearts weren't in it. They were talking of bad calls by the officials, of changing their luck once the series gets back to L.A. But clearly the conviction was gone. Those boisterous bullies who threw the Sonics out of the playoffs a week ago had somehow taken an offramp.
After losing 99-95 to the Jazz on Monday, the Lakers were a Kobe Bryant whisker away from elimination in the playoffs. What could they say? They had tried. Following a 35-point loss in the first game of the Western Conference Finals on Saturday, they made a decent run in Game 2, only to lose again. Did they want to win? Sure. Did they play hard? Absolutely. But when you're up against this year's Men of La Mancha, what are you supposed to do?"Bring a bat to the game," offered Lakers' guard Nick Van Exel. "Try to kill one of 'em."
Winning this series may well take some sort of drastic measure on the Lakers' part. They could kidnap one of John Stockton's five kids, but he may not notice one's gone until after he's run the Lakers from the playoffs. They could tamper with the brakes on Karl Malone's Harley. For the time being, the Lakers would settle for stopping Chris Morris.
"Hopefully," said L.A.'s Sha-quille O'Neal, "when we go home for these two games, we'll get all of the breaks."
If the Lakers had been paying attention, they would have noticed they got a major break on Monday. The Jazz spent three quarters fumbling away the ball, missing wide open shots and shanking free throws as they were about to take the lead. Now that they've lost again, the Lakers are facing almost insurmountable odds. They must overcome a 2-0 deficit, which is something that has only been done seven times in league history.
Hence, the Lakers left town Monday night with a whimper, rather than a shout. They can hope for a resurgence, yes, but they may do better to hope the Jazz team bus gets hijacked or the whole team goes down with Legionnaire's disease. There's always a chance the Big One will hit the San Andreas Fault and the series will be canceled. But even hoping acts of nature - or human nature - intervene doesn't seem to help. When the South Central riots broke out in 1992, it didn't stop the Jazz from eliminating the Clippers. Hoping for a reprieve is like hoping Geraldo Rivera will go away. Ain't gonna happen.
If the Lakers are feeling slightly nonplussed, they couldn't be blamed. The Jazz played an almost perfect game on Saturday and won by 35 points. It looked a little like a basketball game and a lot like a cow being slaughtered. But the Jazz played poorly for most of Game 2 and won that one, too. They got only 17 bench points, had 15 turnovers after three quarters and missed 11 free throws, several with the Jazz within a point or two of the lead. Didn't matter.
Indeed, if the Lakers were going to turn the tide in this series, their best chance came and went. They led by nine in the second quarter. In the third quarter the Jazz seemed intent on letting the Lakers steal away with a win. With Utah trailing by one in the early third quarter, Jeff Hornacek missed an open jumper. Soon after, the Jazz made three quick turnovers. Malone missed two free throws at the end of the half and one of two at the end of the third quarter. The Jazz had to settle for a one-point deficit in both cases.
"It seemed that way for about three quarters. Every time we had a chance we'd miss a free throw or make a turnover. It was starting to feel like, uh-oh, it's going to be one of those nights," Hornacek said.
"It was," said Greg Foster, "kind of nerve-wracking."
Finally, Morris, who normally can be counted on to make a difference every 10 games or 5,000 miles, whichever comes first, spun for a basket with 9:40 to go in the game. The Jazz never trailed after.
John Stockton handled the ball down the stretch and played the Lakers like a harp. Malone ended up with 33 points, two more than O'Neal. The Jazz, who are 7-1 in series in which they won the first two games, were looking fit and ready for the NBA Finals.
"Yeah, we could take some confidence out of that," said Foster, considering the Jazz played one great game and one mostly poor game, yet are 2-0 in the series. "Obviously we can't always play to the level we played in the first game. We'd like to, but that would be tough, real tough."
It seems they won't need to. As the series moves back to the Great Western Forum, the Jazz know they have beaten the Lakers when they played a perfect game but also when their warts were showing. Different method, same result. So far all the Lakers have to show for the series is their plane tickets back to L.A. If they haven't won by now, when will they?