Deseret News - Was ‘The Last Dance’ for Michael Jordan the last chance for the Utah Jazz?

Discussion in 'Jazz Newz' started by Doug Robinson, May 23, 2020 at 4:22 PM.

  1. [​IMG] Micheal Jordan after stealing the ball in the final seconds during Sunday night’s Game 6 of the NBA Finals at the Delta Center, June 14, 1998. | Tom Smart, Deseret News

    SALT LAKE CITY — There are some things in life that are best not revisited. Adam Sandler movies, for instance. Ice Capades. High school. The proctologist. Oh, and if you’re a Utah Jazz fan, the 1998 NBA Finals.

    If they haven’t already seen it, Jazz followers should probably skip Episode 10 of “The Last Dance,” the Michael Jordan documentary. The 1998 NBA Finals showdown between the Jazz and the Chicago Bulls is the climax of Jordan’s career and documentary. It’s a storybook ending — Hollywood couldn’t have written it any better.

    Unless they were writing for the audience in Salt Lake City.

    Episode 10 provides a blow-by-blow account of that series, and it will remind Jazz fans just how close their team came to winning Game 6 to set up a Game 7 in Salt Lake City. It’s the equivalent of tearing a Band-Aid off a scab for an hour.

    The Jazz had a three-point lead with 41 seconds remaining. Then Jordan wrote the ending. A layup. A steal. A shot. A sixth title for Jordan and the Bulls.

    The Jazz’s great chance to win it all was gone. Who knows if they will ever get another one in a league that is almost devoid of parity.

    The Jazz team of 1998 was 14 years in the making. That’s how long it took to collect the cast of players that got them to the finals in both 1997 and 1998 — Stockton, Malone, Hornacek, Russell, Eisley, Morris, Keefe, Ostertag, Carr … It was just their misfortune to reach their peak years when the greatest basketball player ever was at the height of his powers.

    Timing is everything. Jordan couldn’t hit a curveball and returned to basketball to torture the Jazz, who otherwise might have won not one, but two championships.

    The Bulls beat them in six games in 1997. The Bulls beat them in six games in 1998.

    Of their eight losses in those NBA Finals, six were decided by five or fewer points.

    It’s easy to forget just how difficult it was for the Jazz just to get to the Finals. They were on top of their game for several years before the 1996-97 season, losing in the conference finals three times in five years. John Stockton’s 3-point shot in Houston got them over the hump.

    [​IMG] AP
    Utah’s John Stockton is lifted on the shoulders of his teammates after sinking a 3-point shot at the buzzer to beat the Houston Rockets 103-100 in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals Thursday, May 29, 1997, in Houston.

    After losing to the Bulls in the ’97 Finals, with two games being decided by two points, the Jazz came back better than ever for the 1997-98 season, tying the Bulls for the best record in the NBA (62-20).

    They won Game 1 in overtime, 88-85, in Salt Lake City. They lost Game 2, 93-88. The series moved to Chicago and the Jazz played horribly, losing 96-54 and putting up the fewest points in any NBA game since the creation of the shot clock. “This is actually the score?” said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan as he stared at the stat sheet afterward. The Bulls won Game 4, 86-82, to take a 3-1. The Jazz faced almost certain elimination with the next game in Chicago, but they won 83-81 to send the series back to Salt Lake City.

    The table was set for the Jazz. They were on their home court, and Scottie Pippen, Jordan’s sidekick, had a painful lower-back injury that forced him to leave the court early in the first half and again in the second half. When he tried to play he struggled just to run up the court. This forced Jordan, who played 45 minutes the previous game, to play more minutes. It was a close game but Stockton’s 3-point shot gave the Jazz an 86-83 lead with 41 seconds left.

    Every Jazz fan can recite what happened next. The Bulls called timeout, at least in part so Jordan could rest. Jordan sat on the bench, exhausted, chomping furiously on gum. Pippen inbounded the ball from the half-court line to Jordan, who immediately drove past Bryon Russell for a layup to cut the Jazz’s lead to 86-85.

    As he ran up the court, Jordan recalled, “I knew they were going to run that patented play through Karl Malone. They ran that play a couple of times prior and Dennis (Rodman) and Malone had been fightin’ all game. And Karl just totally forgot about me on the weak side.”

    Malone caught a pass while backing into Rodman on the block and Jordan ran down the end line and swatted the ball out of Malone’s hands with 19 seconds left in the game. Malone never saw him coming.

    Jordan picked up the loose ball and began dribbling up the court. He glanced at coach Phil Jackson and could see he wasn’t going to call timeout. Jackson said later that he didn’t want to give the Jazz an opportunity to set up a defense, so he let the clock run. There was no doubt who was going to shoot the ball. Teammates Rodman and Pippen said their only thought was to get out of Jordan’s way and let him do his thing. There was no chance he was going to pass the ball.

    “When I scoped over the floor, I felt like I could get a jump shot off or I can get all the way to the basket,” Jordan recalled.


    Going one-on-one with Russell, Jordan dashed to the right but suddenly pulled up and Russell’s momentum carried him past, with Jordan’s left hand on the back of his leg to help him along. Many have accused Jordan of a push-off, but replays show there was little push and nothing that would normally be called a foul. Russell tried to recover but slipped and fell as Jordan rose for the jump shot. It was a swish and the Bulls had an 87-86 lead with five seconds left.

    Stockton missed on a last-second 3-point shot and the game and the Jazz were finished.

    Jordan played almost 44 minutes and finished with 45 points. In the last 40 seconds, he made the layup, the steal and the game-winning shot.

    Thus, the window closed for the Jazz to win a championship. Most consider those two Finals were the Jazz’s best hopes for a title. Frank Layden, the former Jazz coach and president, believed the Jazz should have at least one title before they ever met the Bulls. He said that if the Jazz’s 7-foot-4 center, Mark Eaton, hadn’t injured his back, which ultimately cut his career short, the Jazz would’ve won titles in 1994 and 1995, instead of losing to the Rockets in the playoffs both years.

    “We were better than that team,” Layden once said. “We could beat them. Mark could handle (Houston star Hakeem) Olajuwon. We could’ve got one of those championships. Jordan was playing baseball. Then Jordan came back, and if we had had Mark we would’ve won one of those (against the Bulls), too. He was a big force defensively and an outlet passer. Look, we took the Lakers to seven games (in the 1988 Western Conference semifinals) and that might have been the best team ever, with Jabbar, Magic and Worthy. We gave them all they could handle.”

    They gave Jordan and the Bulls all they could handle, too.

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