All-knowing sports fans - you know, the ones that call up the sports-talk radio shows - place the blame on Karl Malone for the Utah Jazz losing Game 2 and the homecourt advantage for the time being to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.
And they're not alone. Malone has branded himself the goat."If I have any kind of decent game (on Friday), we win," said Malone Saturday after a short practice at Westminster College and before he and the rest of the Jazz boarded a charter plane to Chicago for this evening's Game 3. "We didn't get here by me not playing decent. The first game we got away with it, but the second game I didn't play well either.
Malone, who is 14-for-41 shooting (34 percent) from the field in the first two games, was even willing to give himself a grade. Again, he didn't pull any punches and was actually quite harsh.
"D or D-minus - that's an F in some schools," said the Mailman, who has been rebounding well, averaging 13 per game, despite his shooting woes. "The teacher might like me a little bit, so I'll say D-.
"Jerry Sloan hasn't been nearly so tough on his superstar power forward. "Karl Malone did not shoot the ball once wanting to miss," he said.
Still, the Jazz know they'll need more out of their top scorer if they are going to beat Michael Jordan and the Bulls at least once in the next three games at the United Center and return the best-of-7 series back to Utah.
"We need him to get rolling, one way or another," said Antoine Carr. "We need to find something in order to make him click."
Malone, like many observers, believes he will have to get going or else Michael Jordan and Co. will earn their sixth title of the 1990s. Still, he's trying not to stress out about it.
"The worst thing in the world for me to do now is try to put the whole weight of the team on my shoulders," Malone said. "Yeah, I know it's important, but I don't want to start rushing things. I'm not going to come out and try to do anything weird or crazy. I just want to stay within what we're trying to do."
At least the Jazz have history on their side in a couple of respects. First, no team in the NBA Finals has ever swept the three middle games at home since the league adopted the 2-3-2 format 15 years ago. The Jazz came close last year, winning the third and fourth games, but the Bulls edged Utah in Game 5. As long as the Jazz win at least one game in the United Center, they'll be able to return to the friendly confines of the Delta Cen-ter.
It also stands to reason that Malone will improve. His 16-point output was his worst this season. While Dennis Rodman is taking credit for his defensive effort against the Mailman, the reality is that Malone is missing outside shots he's been hitting all year.
"I've been around this team a long time, and every time we lose a tough game, we respond really well the next game," said Malone. "I can't remember when I've had three bad games in a row. I'm looking to staying patient and not come out and take the first 10 shots. We realized we have to win in Chicago. We've done it before, and we're looking to do it now."
Utah, which has won 11 of its past 13 playoff games despite Friday night's setback, hasn't lost two games in a row since November, when John Stockton was still out of commission following knee sur-gery.
"We have to go to (Chicago) and steal one or two," said Bryon Russell. "It's not over. It's one loss. We ran off seven straight (wins), so we had to lose one sometime. (Friday) wasn't a good time to lose one, but we lost it so we just have to regroup from it."
While Sloan wasn't upset at Malone specifically, he's plenty peeved at the team as a whole. He felt the Jazz played "soft" and "like we were wearing tuxedos" in Game 2. He pointed to the fact that the Jazz turned the ball over 20 times and allowed the Bulls 18 offensive rebounds as proof.
"A couple times we didn't know what we were doing in our offense," Sloan said. "Turnovers, ability to offensive rebound and our desire to defend them I have a problem with. Especially in these kind of games. Maybe regular season you'll be a little bit more lenient with them, but I just don't think we came to play basketball in our own building. I'm disappointed. I was upset, but I realized you can't make anyone do anything. They don't want to play hard, I have no other choice but to watch us play that way, I guess."
Bulls vs. Jazz: The Rematch
Game 1 Jazz 88
John Stockton leads Jazz with 24 points
Game 2 Chicago 93
Jordan scorches the Jazz for 37>
Game 3 Utah at
June 7 Chicago
Sunday TV, Time: NBC, 5:30 o.m.
Game 4 Utah at
June 10 Chicago
Wednesday TV, Time: NBC, 7 p.m.
Game 5 Utah at
June 12 Chicago
If necessary TV, Time, NBC, 7 p.m
Game 6 Chicago
June 14 at Utah
If necessary TV, Time, NBC, 5:30 p.m.
Game 7 Chicago
June 17 at Utah
If necessary TV, Time: NBC, 7 p.m.