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A Final Chance?

Malone, Stockton Make Another Run in What May Be Last, Best Opportunity


SALT LAKE CITY — Hold your breath--Karl Malone, John Stockton and the rest of the Utah Jazz are trying to win the NBA championship again.

For almost a decade, theirs has been an odyssey and a tragedy, a testament to the staying power of two luminous players, a remarkable defiance of the trashy trends of modern hoops, and, ultimately and frustratingly, a failure to finalize the journey.

The epitaphs are ready. The theme has long since been etched into stone. The Utah Jazz: Nice team, no rings.

So, 64 regular-season victories, another Midwest Division title, and a first-round sweep of the Clippers into this fateful chapter, with Malone and Stockton aging well but aging mercilessly deep into their 30s nonetheless, have we come to witness the Jazz's last stand?

Is the era of Modern Jazz about to be finished off with a flourish, or another playoff flameout?

"Aww, we've heard that for years now," Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan said this week when asked if this was Utah's last, best hope to at least make it to the NBA finals. "I've answered that question for five years.

"It started in Golden State five years ago [after the Jazz lost in a first-round upset] and they said, 'Well, John and Karl have lost a step.'

"These people who say that have never been around them, day in and day out."

But the Jazz brass and players do admit that, win it all or lose to the Lakers, this is Utah's best team.

Day in and day out this season--their 11th together in Salt Lake City--despite predictions of impending doom, Malone and Stockton have once again run roughshod over the competition, pulling the Jazz to a franchise-best record and the top seeding in the Western Conference.

With small forward Bryon Russell and guard Jeff Hornacek taking some of the load off of the Jazz combo, Utah opened the regular season with a 19-3 record, finished with a 19-1 run, swept the Clippers in the first round, and won more games after the All-Star break than any other team.

If not for a strange 4-10 spell in December and January, the Jazz would have flirted hard with the 70-victory mark.

And yet, Malone said Saturday with a shrug, he knows the Jazz goes into Game 1 today of the second-round series against the fourth-seeded Lakers as something less than a strong favorite.

"We're not [favored]," Malone said. "It's fine with me. Even though we won 64 games, oh, just a fluke. Even though we went into this thing as the No. 1 seed, we weren't considered the team to beat.

"Because we're supposedly too old. We run the same plays. We're predictable. But a lot of other teams run our same plays too. I guess we're that predictable."

The results for the Jazz in the playoffs, though, have gotten predictable enough.

Utah has been in the playoffs every year since 1984 (the year before Stockton was drafted, two years before Malone), but has never gotten past the Western Conference finals.

Last year was the closest moment: The Jazz lost, 90-86, in Seattle, in Game 7 of the conference finals.

But, despite having just finished the best regular season of his career (averaging 27.4 points and 9.9 rebounds, a career-high 368 assists, voted to the all-defensive team, seemingly in a dead heat with Michael Jordan for the most valuable player award), Malone is 33.

Stockton, at 35, saw his assists average drop for the fourth consecutive year, this time to 10.5 (his career-high was 14.5 in 1988-89) and had his nine-year run as the assist champion broken by Indiana's Mark Jackson.

How long can Utah's window of opportunity stay open?

"Well, I think the older we get, the nucleus of the team, the more people say [time is running out]," Malone said. "The window is not going to open forever, in the back of your mind you know that.

"But, realistically, I think we've got more than this chance here or the next chance. I think we have a legitimate two or three more years."

Said Scott Layden, the team's vice president for basketball operations: "Everybody talks about the window of opportunity. The window of opportunity for this franchise will always stay open until John and Karl walk over and shut it.

"Every year they get us ready, they defy everything to keep this franchise successful. We bring in a lot of different players around them and they've always responded. We've been on their coattails a long time."

Theories abound why the Jazz hasn't been able to hop over the hurdle into the championship series at least once--the lack of a dominating center, the methodical style that works so well in the regular season can be stopped in a series, the refusal of Malone or Stockton to take games off (they have started in 467 consecutive games together), or just plain bad luck.

In 1988, Utah's first taste of the big time, it was the Magic Johnson Lakers scraping by in a seven-game, second-round thriller on their way to a title; in 1992, it was a home loss in Game 6 to Portland in the conference finals; in 1994 and '95, Houston and Hakeem Olajuwon bounced the Jazz and won back-to-back titles.

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