Now that the NBA Finals have moved east, and the momentum has shifted, the Jazz are no doubt sighing with relief. No more listening to all that talk of a sweep. No more entertaining relatives who came to town to watch the playoffs. They're back on the road, where they can hunker down and think about basketball 24-7, which in the hoop vernacular means 24 hours, seven days a week.
Not only is the series tied 1-1, but the Bulls can win it all, here at the United Center. All they need to do is be perfect at home and they can send the Jazz back to Utah a loser. And in a weird sort of way, the Jazz couldn't be happier.It isn't like the Jazz wouldn't like to be up 2-0 in this series; it's just the pressure. It's hard to be humble when you're rolling like they were. Then there's the other things: expectations, television appearances and don't forget the possible visit to the White House. Being stars can be a big job.
Given a choice, the Jazz would much rather travel incognito. To win Game 1 but lose Game 2, as well as the homecourt advantage, is one of those blessings in disguise. Now they're back in familiar terr-i-tory, which is to say fighting the odds. Now they're back to trying to upset the Big Bad Bulls.
If losing Game 2 sounds like bad news for the Jazz, consider this: They made their reputation by being underdogs. It's hard to teach old underdogs new tricks. Favored in a series? Time to call on those shop-worn idioms like, "We haven't done anything yet," or "They're a tough team and they aren't going to just lay down and die." To their chagrin, the Jazz came into the NBA Finals this year picked to win by numerous experts.
For a team that has spent all 23 years of its existence playing the role of over-achiever, this year was a catastrophe. Instead of arriving under cover of darkness, they came on like a garlic sandwich. They embarrassed the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals, then handled the Bulls in Game 1.
Being favored has never been the Jazz's favorite approach. It makes them feel uncomfortable and clumsy. They would rather be the scrappy street urchins than arrogant barons. In fact, it was just such a scenario that got them going strong in the playoff business. It was 1988 and the Jazz were in the Western Conference Semifinals against Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the rest of the Hollywood Lakers. Jazz coach Frank Layden devised a plan whereby he would sucker the Lakers into apathy: They would play dead by claiming they had no business playing such a mighty team. It was cheesy and contrived - and it nearly worked. The Lakers had to go seven games before moving on to win the NBA championship.
The Jazz loved every minute.
Since then they have thrived and improved by merely being the Jazz - which is to say making the most of being underdogs. They've been the inspiration for such classics books as "The Power of Negative Thinking" and "You're OK, I'm Inferior" and "Chicken Soup for an Underdog's Soul."
Meanwhile, when favored, they've often struggled. In 1988, before they met the Lakers, they upset Portland in four games. But the next year they had a higher seed than the Golden State Warriors and ended getting dumped in three straight. In 1990 Phoenix finished behind the Jazz in the standings, yet beat them in five games in the first round. But the following year, with the positions reversed, they smothered Phoenix in four games.
By 1992 their inferiority complex had blossomed into complete denial. No matter who they played, or how many games they won, they would babble about being up against the odds. Their worst fears were almost realized when the lowly L.A. Clippers came a few minutes from eliminating them in the first round. In 1994, against Denver, they nearly became the first team to blow a 3-0 series lead, until a gargantuan game by Karl Malone prevented disaster.
In 1995 they lost to Houston in the first round, despite being seeded higher. That was the year David Benoit got a case of the yips, which unfortunately coincided with the last four minutes of the game. The next year they came close to repeating against Portland, before taking Game 5 in Salt Lake.
Last year they surprised even themselves, beating everyone they were supposed to on their way to the Finals. But they never did quite get the hang of wearing their pride on their chests.
So now it's down to Game 3 and, if not relieved, at least the Jazz are comfortable. They're back in their comfort zone. They should be their old, insecure selves. Which isn't all bad. They have the Bulls right where they want 'em.