It's still too early to order the "NBA Champions" banner for the Delta Center. Plans for a ticker-tape parade down State Street in honor of the Utah Jazz's first title are a bit premature right now, too. It's not time to have Jerry Sloan's crew fitted for championship rings just yet, either.
Still, the Jazz did what champions do on Wednesday night - namely, they made the big plays when it mattered even though their best player had an off game.Karl Malone struggled, which used to spell doom for the Jazz. But on Wednesday night in the Delta Center, there were plenty of other Jazzmen to pick up the slack, as Utah took a 1-0 NBA Finals lead in the best-of-7 series over the Chicago Bulls with an 88-85 overtime victory.
Game 1 turned out to be much like last year's through the first 47-plus minutes - only to be radically different down the stretch. This time John Stockton, not Michael Jordan, was the mid-thirty-something guard to take over with the game on the line.
The similarities to last year's game, in fact, were enough to make Jazz fans cringe. Malone shot the ball poorly, just as he did in the series opener a year ago. The Jazz gave up a lead after being ahead most of the game, which they also did last year. Utah ran numerous defenders at Jordan without a great deal of success in slowing him down - again. Once again the Bulls star led all scorers.
But while Jordan made a jumper at the buzzer last year to give Chicago a 1-0 lead in the series, it was Stockton who had the game's biggest hoop this time around. Stockton missed a forced 19-footer that would have won the game at the end of regulation but made good on a second opportunity to be the game's hero. His driving, one-on-one, high-arching floater from 9 feet in the lane over Steve Kerr gave the Jazz an 86-83 lead with 9.3 seconds left in the OT.
"I was in the paint, and it seemed like some guys fanned out to the passing lanes," explained Stockton when asked about what was essentially the game-clincher. "I just shot the shot, and fortunately it went it."
"We wanted John to have to take a tough shot if he was going to," said Bulls coach Phil Jackson. "Steve stayed in front of him, and it was a tough one. I'll live with that."
Stockton, who scored seven of his team-high 24 points in the overtime, added a pair of free throws with 3.5 seconds left for good measure.
The Bulls actually had a last-second 3-point attempt to tie it, but Scottie Pippen's 30-footer hit only the backboard and the Jazz escaped.
While the Jazz came away with the victory - and history shows that Game 1 winners go on to claim best-of-7 series about 80 percent of the time in the NBA - Chicago's coach felt good about his team's showing.
"I couldn't ask for a better game and a better opportunity to win on their court," said Jackson. "We feel like we let one slip away. It's obvious we had our chances, and it took a heck of a shot by John Stock-ton there at the end to kind of extinguish our hopes."
Chicago, the five-time NBA champ, looked as well-oiled as the Toronto Raptors in overtime. The Bulls committed three turnovers in the overtime, including two in a row when they had a chance to tie the game. First, Jordan lost track of the time and the 24-second clock expired with 1:19 remaining and the Jazz holding on to a tenuous 84-82 lead.
"It was a mental lapse," said Jordan. "We had our play set, and I think Scottie (Pippen) got confused in terms of what the play was, so we had to start it back over again. I never really noticed the clock, and no one really noticed the clock, and the next thing you know we have a 24-second violation."
Still, the Bulls had another chance to tie or go up with a 3-pointer with the Jazz still holding on to that 84-82 lead. This time 7-foot-2 Luc Longley tried his best Jordan impersonation and made a driving move into the lane. Malone knocked the ball away from Longley, and Bryon Russell dove to come up with it, giving the Jazz possession with 29.4 seconds remaining. That set up Stockton's game-clincher.
"(Longley) thought he was about 6-5 and tried to go to the hole," said Jordan of his teammate's ill-fated drive. "That's a mental mistake that we can improve on."
Jordan finished with a game-high 33 points, but he was only 5-for-15 from the field during the second half and overtime. The Jazz started the game with Jeff Hor-na-cek on Jordan, but they put fresh defenders on him every couple of minutes. Hornacek, Russell, Stockton, Howard Eisley, Shandon Anderson and Chris Morris all took turns on Jordan with varying degrees of success.
Whether it was because of the Jazz defense or due to Game 7 against Indiana on Sunday or some other factor, Jordan looked tired down the stretch. He even admitted that he called timeout at one point late in the game just to catch his breath.
Malone, meanwhile, fared worse than Jordan. He went 9-for-25 from the field for 21 points. He didn't hit a single outside shot during the first 46 minutes of game action. But he nailed two in a row with under two minutes to play in regulation immediately after the Bulls had gone on a 7-0 run to knot the game 75-75.
"Jeff Hornacek kept telling me it's a 48-minute game - he didn't tell me anything about the overtime - but he said, it's a 48-minute game, and he said to keep shooting," said Malone.
When the Jazz needed them most, Malone's jumpers finally fell.
Russell came up big for the Jazz with 15 points and eight boards in a team-high 48 minutes. The Jazz reserves outscored the Bulls subs by a 22-8 margin.
The overtime was Stockton's, however. The Jazz point guard scored the final seven points of the extra period for Utah, starting off with a three-point play when he was fouled on a fast-break layup with 3:23 remaining, giving the Jazz an 84-79 lead.
"Stockton may be small," said Russell, "but he played huge. I'm glad we have him on our team."
Round 2 is set for Friday night at 7 in the Delta Center.
Stockton scores in the clutch
With 14 seconds left in overtime, Karl Malone sets a pick for John Stockton on Steve Kerr. Kerr fights through the pick, but Stockton has a step and drives the lane. Michael Jordan has two choices: collapse the lane, forcing Stockton to kick the ball out to Bryon Russell for an open 3-point look, or give up the lane. Jordan choose the latter, and Stockton makes him pay by burying a floater over Kerr with nine seconds remaing, providing Utah with its winning margin.
Game 1 Jazz 88
John Stockton leads Jazz with 24-points.
Game 2 Chicago
June 5 at UTAH
Fri. TV, TIME: NBC, 7 p.m.
Game 3 UTAH
June 7 at Chicago
Sun. TV, TIME: NBC, 5:30 p.m.
Game 4 UTAH
June 10 at Chicago
Wed. TV, TIME: NBC, 7 p.m.
Game 5 UTAH
June 12 at Chicago
TV TIME: NBC, 7:00 p.m.
Game 6 Chicago
June 14 at UTAH
TV, TIME: NBC, 5:30 p.m.
Game 1 Chicago
June 17 at UTAH
TV, TIME: NBC, 7 p.m.