THIS time there was no celebration. No spontaneous leaps into one another's arms. No wild exhuberance when they realized they had made the NBA Finals. Nobody cried with joy or choked with emotion.
This time it was all business.The Utah Jazz earned their second straight trip to the Finals, Sunday, beating the L.A. Lakers 96-92. From the way they reacted, you would have thought they had qualifed for a free membership at Blockbuster. Whoop-de-doo. They shook hands with one another, then with the Lakers, and left the court.
You mean you're not going to celebrate by going to Disney-land? Sorry. Wrong team. Wrong season.
This year there was no unbridled elation, no chaotic photo-op. Last year it was John Stockton, nailing a 3 with the clock running down and everyone on the edge of their seats. This year, though fans were still on the edge of their seats as Shaquille O'Neal shanked free throws down the stretch, their motto was "less is more." After the game they nodded politely, but their eyes were far off. Though they wouldn't say it, everyone knew they wanted the Bulls. They wanted another shot at Michael.
It has been that way for the Jazz through the playoffs and throughout the year. Though they have always talked of keeping an even temperament, last year they couldn't disguise their excitement. When they beat Houston and earned the team's first trip to the NBA Finals, they were the classic happy-to-be-there delegation. The Accidental Tourists. Last year they were wide-eyed school kids on their way to the zoo. This year they're grown-ups on their way to work.
Last year they reveled in each thrilling step. This year they ignored the preliminaries and cut to the chase. Last year they were gee-whiz, golly-gosh thrilled to be invited. This year they have an appointment.
Last year Shandon Anderson couldn't make a layup; this year he's discovered dunking is more effective - and fun. Last year Greg Ostertag was trying to stay out of Shaq's way; this year he's attacking the hoop. Last year Chris Morris was the forgotten man, waiting to be traded; this year he's demoralizing opponents with points off the bench. Last year Howard Eisley was a sometimes flustered backup guard; this year he could start on most teams.
Last year they were determined but uncertain how to handle the fuss of being in the Finals. This year they're coming with day planners in hand.
"Last year was our first time. It was kind of a hurdle everyone's trying to get over," said Jeff Hornacek. "We finally made it, and it was on a last-second shot, and we were just fighting to get over that hump. This year I guess it's old hat. We did it last year. It's still a great accomplishment, but the whole thing all year was that we don't want to just win the West. We want to win the championship."
That plan served the Jazz well in the Western Conference Finals. They came into the series facing the hottest team in the NBA. The Lakers had marched through the playoffs, beating Portland in three games, Seattle in four. Most impressive, they beat the Sonics four straight after losing the opener.
But that was before they met the G.I. Joes of the NBA. The Jazz were going to carry out their mission - or else. The Lakers didn't meet an NBA team, they met an avalanche.
So when the Lakers cut the lead to two with 22 seconds left, the Jazz barely flinched. They had their plan and they ran it. John Stockton made two free throws, and after a Lakers' basket, he found Greg Foster on the breakaway for a dunk. Phase III of the four-part program was complete.
The final outcome was a sad realization to the Lakers, who eight days earlier thought they would finally live up to their image. Magic Johnson, who has watched the Lakers' struggle to return to glory, could only sigh. "There was no sense of urgency," he said.
"This," he added "is not the way we were supposed to go out."
But the Lakers hadn't sensed the Jazz's determination. They had expected problems, but they hadn't expected to be annihilated.
Thus, in the relative calm of the locker room after the game, when Bryon Russell was asked about returning to the Finals, he only smiled. Nobody had champagne dripping off his head. Nobody had a T-shirt that said, "Utah Jazz, Western Conference Champs, 1998" on the front.
"We haven't finished what we set out to do," he said.
This time it was old hat.