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Rockets Become the Prize

NBA playoffs: Malone shuns MVP ceremony to get down to business as the Jazz rolls to 101-86 victory in Western Conference opener.

May 20, 1997|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SALT LAKE CITY — Not draw attention to himself? In what lifetime?

In this one, Karl Malone had been named the NBA's most valuable player, Commissioner David Stern was in from New York to make the formal trophy presentation, and the revved-up locals were primed for the moment, or the coronation. And Malone pretty much wanted it to go away.

"It was like, I didn't want to draw any more attention to the MVP that was not already there," he said.

Whatever microscopic fraction that was. Forced to at least briefly endure The Moment, Malone then got to the real business at hand Monday night, working over Charles Barkley for 21 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Utah Jazz to a 101-86 victory over the Houston Rockets at the Delta Center in the opener of the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.

This was hardly the dominating performance that had earned him the highest individual honor in the game, by the second-closest margin when announced the day before. Malone made only six of 16 shots. But a powerful presence of any kind was the last thing the tired Rockets needed to wrestle with, so his impact was significant even without glowing numbers.

Barkley, meanwhile, had 12 points, on three-of-10 shooting, and eight rebounds. Forget Malone. It was Greg Ostertag who canceled that out, the Jazz center getting 10 rebounds and eight points in only 22 minutes.

Call it the hangover from Saturday afternoon's Game 7 victory over the Seattle SuperSonics. Or the carryover. The Rockets, aged but at least rested at this point in the season because Barkley and Clyde Drexler had both missed at least 20 games because of injuries during the regular season, were beat, as in tired, even before they were beat, as in defeated.

So they could at least understand the 38% shooting from the field, including 31.3% in the third quarter as the game became a blowout, and the 18 turnovers. They just didn't like it.

"They outplayed us in every facet of the game," Barkley said. "Coach [Rudy Tomjanovich] said he was embarrassed, and I agree with that. It was embarrassing the way we played."

Said Utah Coach Jerry Sloan: "Look at the field-goal percentage. How else do you explain it? Thirty-eight%? That wasn't our defense."

Imagine if Hakeem Olajuwon had fallen in line. He was the Rockets' glare, the one Houston player of significance who produced. But a game-high 30 points isn't worth much when the 10 others combine for 56, and the 13 rebounds, which tied Malone for top honors, was five better than the next closest teammate.

Not that the Jazz was its synchronized best either to take a lead in the conference finals for the first time in its four appearances, not while shooting 44%. Still, John Stockton had 16 points and 13 assists against only two turnovers and Jeff Hornacek added 19 points and the bench played well, led by Shandon Anderson's 11 points and five rebounds.

But even with his sub-par shooting, and even with his plan to low-key the pre-game ceremonies, there was no way Malone was going to avoid the spotlight on this night. If he hadn't waited a lifetime for this moment, the people of the city and the region had, finally getting national recognition after years of bemoaning how they were ignored.

Malone had carried the banner of no-respect himself at times. But when the trophy was presented, it was as if he had a getaway car rumbling outside.

It was no snub, to the fans or the moment. It was, Malone said with all sincerity, a necessity.

"I wanted to enjoy it. But I didn't want to get caught up in it."

That chance will come later, in the summer. These moments are for something else. For the games Malone hopes will become the trophy he really wants to hold.

* EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: As if they needed any breaks, the Chicago Bulls meet the potentially overmatched and weary Miami Heat instead of the dangerous New York Knicks. C8

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