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Soul-Searching Begins in Utah

NBA playoffs: Kings oust Jazz, 91-86, bringing questions about futures of Stockton and Malone.


SALT LAKE CITY — Now comes the summer of discontent.

With eight free agents and an increasingly restless Karl Malone, the Utah Jazz bowed out in the first round of the playoffs for the second season in a row, losing its second game in three days in the once-feared Delta Center, 91-86, to the Sacramento Kings, who won the best-of-five series, 3-1.

The Kings, the Western Conference's No. 1-seeded team, will now play the No. 4 Dallas Mavericks in a matchup of the NBA's two most explosive teams that starts Saturday in Sacramento.

"I'm glad to get this series over," said a relieved King Coach Rick Adelman. "I think our team learned a lot from it, but now we've got to get our track shoes on."

The Kings, who had swept the Jazz, 4-0, this season, winning by an average of 23 points, split the first two games of this series in Arco Arena and never scored more than 91 points.

"Utah historically has always played possession in the playoffs," Adelman said. "They're competitors. They're going to fight and claw. If we can win three of four ball games and score 90 points, terrific."

And what will happen to the Jazz?

Monday a Salt Lake Tribune headline announced, "Jazz Nearing End of an Era." In the story, John Stockton, 40, refused to speculate if this might be his last game, something he has never done. On the other hand, Malone, 38, who has spent a lot of his summers recently, and parts of some seasons, scouting around for a new opportunity, remarked coyly:

"It's definitely going to be interesting, to say the least."

Monday night, however, it was a curiously passive Malone who showed up, scoring only 14 points with three rebounds, missing 13 of his 20 shots.

The Kings dropped their centers Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard into the lane, daring Jarron Collins and Greg Ostertag to shoot, helping Webber contain Malone. Malone, the master of getting to the foul line, didn't shoot a free throw until only 1:22 remained when he was awarded his only two of the game ... both of which he missed.

And suddenly, it was summer in Utah.

"Every year we've been talking about that," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan of the speculation about Malone and Stockton. "A lot of people thought John and Karl should have retired 10 years ago....

"We accept any decision they make, to play or not play. Our biggest ambition this year, to start up with, we're playing two rookies [in rotation]. I thought it was imperative to get to the playoffs some way, somehow....

"I don't worry about that [Malone and Stockton leaving] because I have no control over it. It's just like we lost [Jeff] Hornacek, Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley, all those guys. We still had to play. We might not be as good, but my job stays the same."

Malone still has one year left on his contract and, after the usual maneuvering and posturing, is expected back. Stockton, who had one of his best seasons since turning 35, is a free agent but isn't expected to go anywhere else or retire.

"I don't think that team over there is ready to pass any torch," said Adelman. "They're going to be good as long as those guys [Malone and Stockton] want to play."

Just not as good as they used to be, and not good enough to go on from here.

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