All signs, except one, point to Jazz

June 03, 1998|By John Eisenberg

Eyes closed, common sense in repose, chin exposed, here goes: Jazz in six.

That's right, a pick against Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals.

Talk about dumb and dumber.

Picking against Jordan is like swatting at a hornet's nest and then slabbing honey on your arm. You almost know you're going to get stung.

Jordan is 5-0 in the Finals and only maybe the most willful athlete ever.

Picking him to lose with a title on the line is like picking Pavarotti to burp during the grand finale of the opera. It just doesn't happen.

But the fat man is about to burp, or whatever.

Not because of Jordan himself. He can't carry a team alone, as he could a few years ago, but it is his desire and talent that will carry the Bulls as far as they go, which is a lot further than many of them deserve.

But the Jazz will win two of three at home and, yes, two of three in Chicago to win the series.

Because the Jazz is hungrier, deeper and stronger inside.

Because the Bulls, other than Jordan, were so pouty and whiny in the Eastern Conference finals, a bad sign.

Because the Mailman went and grew his hair back.

Actually, there are few reasons not to pick the Jazz, which has the home-court advantage, fresher legs, just as many Hall of Fame players and the motivating memory of last year's Finals loss to the Bulls.

The Jazz lost three games by a total of eight points in that series, and now, unlike then, the Bulls have no defensive answer for Karl Malone.

Not since 1968-69 has one team beaten another in back-to-back Finals.

Five times since then, the team that lost the first series has come back to win the rematch.

Almost all signs point to Utah, Malone and John Stockton finally winning a title.

Let's face it, the Bulls were lucky to survive the Pacers in the conference finals. They would have lost Game 7 if Toni Kukoc hadn't gone wild in the third quarter and the Pacers hadn't completely forgotten to rebound.

Indiana coach Larry Bird beat Jordan three times in the playoffs as a player with the Celtics, and, though he didn't do it again this time, his team humbled the champions. The Bulls won the series but lost their swagger.

"I can't say the best team won, but I'm glad we came out on top," Scottie Pippen said.

A lot of people weren't so glad. The Bulls were hardly presidential during the series. They complained a lot about the officiating, as if Jordan hasn't gotten a million calls over the years. Dennis Rodman sulked like a junior high schooler after Bulls coach Phil Jackson asked him to come off the bench.

Jordan reportedly stood up in the locker room at halftime of Game 7 and shouted at his teammates, "Leave the referees alone! Just shut up and play!"

When a championship team is down to relying on a feeling of entitlement, it becomes hard not to feel that it's Rome in the last days before the fall.

Of course, the Bulls have always had a knack for knowing when to put aside their many distractions and agendas and get serious about winning. That's Jordan's influence.

And that's why picking against him in the Finals, regardless of JTC the circumstances, is like wearing checkered pants and a striped shirt to your first day of high school. You're setting yourself up for a big fall. Almost begging for ridicule.

The last time the Bulls didn't have the home-court advantage in the Finals, they won the first two games in Phoenix to take command of the series. Take that.

Expect them to win one of the first two this time in Salt Lake City, turning Utah's long layoff to their advantage.

"There's no way you can stay in game shape by sitting around," Bird said Sunday night. "Chicago has a great opportunity to go out there and get one early."

But expect Malone to wear them out over the long haul. The success of the Pacers' Dale Davis and Antonio Davis showed just how vulnerable the Bulls are at big forward, with Kukoc too soft and Rodman unable to stop Malone even if he weren't sulking.

The Bulls had Jason Caffey and Brian Williams to throw at Malone last year, but neither is around anymore.

And Jordan, as brilliant as he is, is a year older. He was plainly exhausted at the end of Game 7 against the Pacers, elevating his game on defense more than offense. Poof, Reggie Miller disappeared. But he needed help on offense.

Asking him to carry his otherwise average team in a long series against a team as tough, experienced and motivated as the Jazz is, well, just asking too much.

So the pick is against only maybe the greatest player ever, one still performing nightly miracles big and small.

Smart? Hardly. You do it with your eyes closed, knowing you've set yourself up to fail.

But it's my dumb pick and I'm sticking with it.

Payback time

This year's matchup between Chicago and Utah marks the sixth time since 1972-1973 that teams have met in the NBA Finals in back-to-back years. Each time, there has been a split, which bodes well for the Jazz:

Yrs. .. .. ..Teams .. .. .. .. ..Winner

1972- . .. ..L.A. Lakers .. .. ..L.A., 4-1

1973 .. .. ..vs. New York .. .. .N.Y., 4-1

1978- .. .. .Washington .. .. ...Was., 4-3

1979 .. .. ..vs. Seattle .. .. ..Sea., 4-1

1982- .. .. .L.A. Lakers .. .. ..L.A., 4-2

1983 .. .. ..vs. Philadelphia ...Phi., 4-0

1984- .. .. .Boston vs. .. .. ...Bos., 4-3

1985 .. .. ..L.A. Lakers .. .. ..L.A., 4-2

1988- .. .. .L.A. Lakers .. .. ..L.A., 4-3

1989 .. .. ..vs. Detroit .. .. ..Det., 4-0

Pub Date: 6/03/98

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