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NBA PLAYOFFS

Game Has Not Yet Passed Stockton By

Jazz: Despite declining numbers and tame series thus far, Utah point guard still has his teammates' support.

May 09, 1997|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this series and in this season, though the numbers are down, his teammates are more than sure that John Stockton still can be counted on.

Maybe not, at age 35, to dominate the action every second he's on the floor; maybe not to command, control and create all positive Jazz moments great and small.

In Utah's two home victories to start this series, Stockton had only 13 assists.

And, proving that if you shackle Stockton you can blow apart the Jazz offense, he and his team looked slow and confused during Utah's debilitating four-for-38 shooting debacle to start Game 3 at the Forum.

In the first half, Stockton was a dreadful zero for five from the field, had three fouls and dished out only one assist.

The 13-year veteran point guard has seen his assist average decline from a high of 14.5 in the 1989-90 season to this season's mark of 10.5, a full assist lower than his career average. This is the fourth straight year his average has dropped, his nine-year run as the NBA's assist king having come to an end this season.

"I think what it means is our team is well-rounded enough where John doesn't have to make the scoring pass every play," Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek said before the game Thursday. "In the past, I think every pass that he threw was for a shot, because it had to be.

"Now, we have other guys on the team that can pass the ball. John doesn't have to make every pass."

Malone, for instance, handed out 4.5 assists a game this year, his career high, and Hornacek averaged 4.4, his highest total since he joined the Jazz four years ago.

Meanwhile, small forward Bryon Russell, a talented fourth-year player from Long Beach State, has averaged 4.1, giving Utah by far its deepest batch of passers in the Stockton-Malone era.

Malone's statistics have exploded this season--making him the odds-on favorite to win the league most-valuable-player award. But don't forget about Stockton, Malone says.

"I think I take it for granted, actually," Malone said. "I expect a ton out of John, and I think he expects a ton out of Karl. . . . But I think when we finish playing the game, we'll look back and say, 'You know, that was pretty incredible.' "

And, when it's time and it's necessary, who was that flitting through the Laker defense keyed to stop him in the last minute with Game 2 tied, forcing the Lakers to foul Antoine Carr after a classic Stockton dish-off?

"I'm sure it upsets them a little bit when they can't figure out what to do to slow him down," Carr said. "But it's a lot tougher to slow him down than you'd think."

At moments in this series, the Lakers have run a double-team at Stockton to force the ball out of his hands, but without consistent success.

"When they run two guys at him, we've effectively played four on three," Hornacek said. "We attack it and we score right away.

"He can throw it to me, he can throw it to Karl in the middle, Karl picks it apart. It's hard to do that against our team because all our guys can handle the ball."

According to Hornacek, the player who has added the most to the mix is Russell, who averaged 10.8 points during the regular season and hit two key three-point baskets in both Laker defeats in Utah.

"It's funny, with Bryon, when he shoots it, you assume it's going in every time," Hornacek said. "And in the past, when the shot went up, you were hoping it went in.

"They've got to double Karl with somebody. So [Russell's defender is] the guy they choose to double up with, and he's been killing them."

There's real danger at the Jazz's small forward spot, which is a huge departure from the days of Thurl Bailey or Blue Edwards or David Benoit.

"Obviously, in the past, they would stay home with me, double Karl, stay home with John and make the three-man hit threes," Hornacek said. "And in the past, we weren't able to do it.

"Now with Bryon making them, it just makes the other teams think, 'What are we going to do?' Can't leave him open, can't leave me open, can't leave John open, can't really play Karl one-on-one either, so what do you do?"

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