BY NOW IT has become apparent that if the Jazz are going to win their long, sought-after world championship, they might have to do it without Karl Malone. They might have to press on without the man who played a large part in getting them this far.
Malone has struggled a dozen years to reach the NBA Finals, and now that he is here he appears not to have a clue what to do next.Malone was the second best player in the league during the regular season. He was a force in the quarterfinals against Houston. He was ferocious in the Western Conference semifinals against San Antonio. He was unstoppable in the Western Conference finals against Los Angeles. But on the biggest stage of all, the NBA Finals, he is the invisible man against the Bulls. Again.
On Friday night, two nights after a 9-for-25, 21-point shooting performance in Game 1, Malone scored 16 points. He made 5 of 16 shots. Two of them were dunks.
In the second half, with the lead see-sawing and 20,000 people holding their breath, Malone attempted four field goals.
The Jazz lost the game (93-88) and their home-court advantage. In a battle of nerve, in which there were 15 lead changes and seven ties, Malone was nowhere to be found. This from the man who, shortly before the NBA Finals began, told reporters, "This series will be decided by the big men. I'm willing to put that pressure on myself."
Since then, he seems to have had a change of heart. It is one thing to miss shots; it is another not to take them. It is one thing to miss perimeter shots; it is another not to try a different tack and attack the basket, the way the Bulls did.
After Friday's loss, the first two questions Jerry Sloan fielded from the media concerned Malone's performance. "He missed a couple of shots," said Sloan. ". . . I think there's probably a little bit too much emphasis on that."
A couple of shots? How about 11 of them.
Too much emphasis? On getting Malone the ball? To the 1997 Most Valuable Player in the NBA and the 1998 MVP runner-up? To a player who has averaged 26 points a game for 12 years. Sloan was being tactful.
"I never said I didn't want Karl Malone to take shots," said Sloan, when pressed further on the matter. "The important thing is, how hard do you work to get open shots."
Malone could be back. He is famous for following poor performances with spectacular ones. But he was due to arrive on Friday and never showed.
"We anticipated him to come back and have an extremely good game," said Michael Jordan.
It didn't happen. Jordan said the Bulls' defense forced Malone "to settle for his jump shot." Bull. Malone has been settling for his jump shot for years now. The national press wondered why he was content to play a perimeter game. He's been largely a perimeter player for years now. In Game 4 against San Antonio, he made 17 field goals and all but four of them were from 16 to 18 feet.
"The defense did a heck of a job rotating," said Jordan, trying to explain Malone's performance.
Right. As if Malone hasn't seen that before.
"I don't think it was that," said Malone. "Maybe I'll have to work harder."
Credit Malone for this much. Not for a minute did he dodge the issue after Friday's loss.
"I don't have any excuses," he said. ". . . There are a lot of things I could do that I didn't. I take responsibility for that. A big part of what we do as a team is on these shoulders. I've got to do it.
". . . I wish I could make a lot of excuses, but I don't have any. I haven't played well in the first couple of games. We got away with it the first couple of games. Today, we didn't."
What the problem is is anyone's guess. Malone has played 12 years to get this far. He's become the greatest power forward in the history of the game. He has played on two Olympic championship teams. He has scored nearly 27,000 points.
But in the NBA Finals, he has been another player. In last year's Finals against this same Chicago team, he shot 44 percent from the field and 60 percent from the foul line. So far in this series, he has made 14 of 41 shots from the field.
When Malone was asked if the Jazz can win the world championship without him, he didn't miss a beat. "No," he said. "Point blank, no. We will not win this series if I don't play better. That's just fact. If Karl Malone doesn't play well, we don't win this series."
Malone has two days to recover his game. The Jazz meet the Bulls on Sunday evening in Chicago, site of the next three games. If they don't win there, their season is finished.
"The worst thing I could do now is try to put the whole weight of the team on my shoulders," he said, seeming to contradict himself. "I don't want to rush things. It's just the second game."
Yes, but quite suddenly time is running short in the Jazz's golden moment of opportunity.