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NBA PLAYOFFS

Aggressive Strategy a Smashing Success

Lakers: Guards Van Exel and Jones give Malone (2 for 20) and Stockton (0 for 6) a crash course in shooting defense.

May 09, 1997|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Subtlety was not going to work, not as long as Karl Malone and Greg Ostertag and the rest of the Utah Jazz were banging around the Laker guards like so many candlepins.

Too many times in the last two losses, Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones chased John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek around the floor, only to crash into it after bruising screens by bigger bodies.

So the two Laker guards went into Game 3 determined to do a little slam-dancing of their own, and as a result pushed the Jazz to a shooting percentage that may or may not have been better than the Mighty Ducks'.

"We decided that as long as they keep on screening and pushing and holding and getting away with it, they're going to keep tasting that wood," Van Exel said. "That's what it's all about. After a while, those picks got softer.

"If they keep holding us, we're going to come in with elbows."

After Tuesday's loss in Salt Lake City, the Lakers did not speak to the media because of the non-call on Van Exel's last-second shot.

Thursday, Van Exel had a bright smile, and the Lakers chattered on amiably.

"We were down, 2-0, but we were never down," said Van Exel, who scored 17 points and had five assists. "We had the same confidence we had when we started this series."

Hardly large members of the NBA guard species, Van Exel and Jones made their point early by sending Stockton to the floor several times in the early going, and bouncing hard off forwards Malone and Bryon Russell, with emphasis.

Without the free space to operate, Stockton limped to a dreadful zero-for-six shooting night and never could slice into the lane to cause his particular brand of offensive havoc.

Hornacek heated up in the third quarter, making eight of his nine attempts, but made only one other field goal in the other three quarters.

Add in Malone's super-cold night of the shooting dead, and the Jazz limped to a 28.8% field-goal shooting performance, and only scored 84 points by the grace of its 35-for-43 free-throw performance.

"I think if you don't come out and play in the face of guards, you're in trouble," Jones said. "I think their guards run that team.

"If you let Stockton dribble around free, he's going to find somebody--you're letting him be at his best. And if you let Hornacek come off of screens free to shoot, you're going to have problems."

Van Exel said the aggressive defense carried over to the Laker offense. After feeling "one or two loose balls here or there" changed the course of the first two losses, the Lakers were determined to be first to the ball, first to the basket, and first to Game 3 triumph.

"I just decided to take it to the basket as much as I could," Van Exel said. "I'm pretty hard to stop off of the dribble."

As Malone kept missing and missing and missing, on his way to an amazing two-for-20 shooting spectacle, Van Exel and Jones said they just crossed their fingers and hoped it continued.

"You gotta hope it continues," Jones said. "Malone is a legend. And you think maybe he's going to start hitting at some point. But Elden [Campbell] did a great job against him of getting his hand in his face.

"We know that's not going to continue on Saturday."

Said Van Exel: "I just think it wasn't his night. He had some pretty good looks. But when he was missing early, I thought it was a pretty good sign for us."

Third guard Kobe Bryant, who led the Lakers with 19 points and dominant offensive play against the much-shorter Stockton, said Malone's performance was heaven-sent.

"I don't know how much defense you can play against Karl," Bryant said. "I don't know if he's going to have another night like this in the next game.

"We have to hope and pray that his shots aren't falling, like tonight, in the next game."

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