People keep talking about how the Utah Jazz earned a week to 10 days off before the NBA Finals get under way by sweeping Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals.
Jazz players would disagree about the "days off" part. While it's true that Sunday's 96-92 victory over the Lakers means the Jazz won't play again until next Sunday at the earliest, it doesn't mean the Jazz will be heading to Hawaii to relax and celebrate their second straight Western Conference title.Nope. They made short work of the ultra-talented Lakers and what do they get for a reward? Training camp.
"Actually," said Jeff Hornacek, "practices are much tougher on us than the games are."
So, after getting Memorial Day off like most Americans, the Jazz will be back pounding the hardwood on Tuesday at Westminster College. They'll be on the court practicing and waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting for their inevitable rematch with da Bulls.
Although they'd even settle for the Pacers - or any other team the Eastern Conference wants to trot out.
It would seem only natural that the Jazz would hope to have another crack at the Bulls. You know, to try to get back at the team that beat you the year before.
And deep down they probably are.
But the Jazz are too smart to say much about it just yet so as not to offend the Pacers should Indiana come from behind to upset the reigning world champs.
When John Stockton was asked if the Jazz were hoping for another crack at Michael Jordan and the guys he - as he always does - chose his words carefully.
"Like I've often said, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it."
"I'd love a rematch with Chicago," Stockton admitted, "but I'd love to play Indiana. They are both quality teams with good guys."
Hornacek, a Chicago native who admitted on Saturday that he would rather play his old hometown team, was more judicious after the Finals became reality for the Jazz.
"You know we're not going to say we want to play this team or that team," said Hornacek. "We'll just wait and see what happens. They're both good teams."
When asked who he'd rather play, Bryon Russell answered simply, "It doesn't matter to me."
The long layoff between games may give the Jazz time to grow a bit rusty. If the Bulls are unable to finish the Eastern Conference finals in five, then it will be 10 days between games for Utah.
With the exception of Hornacek, who could use some down time for his injured left Achilles heel to heal, the Jazz would probably rather just keep on playing. Winning 10 of the last 11 playoff games makes a team want to just keep going.
Then again, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan believes the time off between the conference semifinals and finals rejuvenated his team.
"The thing that helped us a little bit was that we had a chance to recover after (playing) six games in 10 days," said Sloan. "The couple of days off helped us to get a little bit of energy back because we had just about run out of gas."
It was the Lakers who looked gassed on Sunday - although they put in at least a decent effort in the fourth quarter. For most of the first three, the Lakers looked like a team content to be on the golf course come Monday. The Jazz took the lead late in the first quarter and held it throughout - with a double-digit bulge during the majority of the third.
But with Shaquille O'Neal leading the way, the Lakers made a game of it down the stretch. The Jazz went to their hack-a-Shaq defense with mixed results. At one point the Laker giant made 7-of-9 free throws to pull his club to within three with 1:05 remaining. The Lakers crowd, which had been subdued most of the game, actually got off their cellular phones and started to make some noise.
After a Stockton turnover the Lakers even had a chance to cut into the lead even more. Once again Shaq was hacked. This time, with only 27.6 seconds remaining, he clanked a pair. Malone got the rebound, was fouled and made both of his foul shots to put the Jazz up five with 26 seconds left.
Even with much of the Forum crowd heading for the exits, Laker teen Kobe Bryant gave L.A. faithful one last moment of hope before reality struck. He scored and was fouled with 22.7 seconds left. His free throw cut the gap to two. Then Stockton's two free throws with 10.5 seconds remaining pretty much sealed the deal - and perhaps Laker coach Del Harris' fate.
Karl Malone led the Jazz with 32 points and 14 boards. He was 14-of-15 from the foul line. Combine that with his 8-for-8 performance on Friday and the Mailman delivered at a 95.6 percent clip from the line in the two games at the Forum.
Hornacek had his best scoring game of the series with 15. Once again the Jazz bench came up big, out-scoring the Laker subs 29-22. Greg Ostertag, believe it or not, was the high scorer off the bench with 11 points. He also grabbed seven boards with five blocked shots. Howard Eisley scored nine - on three 3-pointer in the second quarter when the Jazz were pulling away to take the lead.
O'Neal scored 38 for the Lakers to go along with seven boards. He had four fewer points than Malone from the foul line despite having three more attempts, however. Eddie Jones broke out of a shooting slump for 19 points.
O'Neal seemed to blame the Lakers loss on taking the Jazz lightly.
"All last year and this year we heard people saying how we couldn't beat Seattle," said center/actor/celebrity pitchman/rap artist. "After we beat (the Sonics) we just didn't think enough about Utah.
Perhaps now that the Lakers are 1-8 against the Jazz the past two seasons in the playoffs they'll think about them next year.
Then again, maybe they won't. The Lakers haven't been accused of being too bright recently.
After dispatching the Lakers, the Jazz didn't do much celebrating. They pretty much just walked off the court.
"I loved the attitude of the guys," Malone said. "We walked off the court. We showed some class by just walking off and going to the locker room. . . . We didn't break out the champagne or nothing like that because we haven't done nothing yet."
It seems that until league commissioner David Stern forks over the NBA Championship Trophy, the Jazz's celebration will have to wait.
Winning the Western Conference title? Big deal. Been there done that.
"We're out to win the whole thing," said Stockton.
Game 1 Jazz 112
Karl Malone leads Jazz with 29 points
Game 2 Jazz 99
John Stockton breaks out with 22 points
Game 3 Jazz 109
Chris Morris scores 15 off the bench
Game 4 Jazz 96
Karl Malone leads Jazz with 32 points