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."
1998 NBA Finals
Game 1 - Overtime
Jazz shake layoff rust to take 1-0 series lead.