The Mailman can put stamp on Finals

June 14, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Chicago Bulls have no answer for Utah's Karl Malone at full force.

No way of stopping him when he plays well.

That was true in the first four games of the NBA Finals, when Malone piddled around and stopped himself and the Bulls sprinted to the brink of another title.

And it was certainly true in Game 5 on Friday night, when Malone scored 25 points in the second half to carry the Jazz to a victory that kept the series going.

If that performance awakened Malone, meaning that we should expect more of the same in Game 6 tonight at the Delta Center, the Bulls are in for a serious fight.

Bulls center Luc Longley is overmatched on Malone. And Malone has a history of dominating Dennis Rodman, even though Rodman had success earlier in this series.

A year ago, the Bulls slowed Malone with Brian Williams and Jason Caffey, both now gone. This year, only Malone has stopped Malone. The Bulls have no antidote.

If Malone suddenly is starting to play big, the Jazz still has a shot in this series despite trailing 3-2.

Not that the Bulls were quivering after the Mailman's first on-time delivery of the series Friday night.

"One [good] game [for Malone] out of five, that's not bad for us," Michael Jordan said. "We just have to clamp down again."

That's the sound of disdain, the sound of a five-time champion still unconvinced of Malone's ability to dominate for long in this setting.

You'd think such doubt would motivate Malone, but he wouldn't even address the issue of his impact.

"I'm not here to talk about Karl Malone and where this [performance] ranks [among his career best]," he told a roomful of reporters Friday night. "This was a team win. If there's one more Karl Malone question, I'm leaving. If there's a team question, I'll answer it."

A noble stance. But let's get serious. It was no coincidence that the Jazz made the biggest comeback since Malone's hairline on a night when Malone finally played like a Dream Teamer.

On any team in any sport, there is a basic structure that serves as a blueprint for success. The role players fill their roles. The stars carry the load.

If the star isn't carrying his load, his team isn't going to win. It's that simple.

The Jazz has decent depth and versatility, but it doesn't have the resources to beat the Bulls with Malone producing at a diminished rate.

What happened to him in the first four games of the series is baffling. He averaged 30 points in Utah's sweep of the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. He looked unstoppable. But then clank.

You can't just credit the Bulls' defense, as suffocating as it is. That doesn't explain Malone just standing on the perimeter missing jumpers for most of the game and then disappearing altogether in the fourth quarter.

It was as if he were in a fog, completely lost and out of sorts.

To credit Rodman is too easy. Malone has always dismissed Rodman's clutching, trash talking and play-acting antics. They have known each other since they carpooled together in a summer league in the early '80s, long before Rodman became a cross-dressing iconoclast. Malone has never bought the act. He has always just pushed the smaller Rodman around. But this time, he let Rodman push him out to the free-throw line without pushing back. Go figure.

Malone gave the same explanation several times earlier in the series. He was just taking what the offense gave him. Staying in his role. Blah, blah.

Again, a noble gesture. The humble superstar. And he does rely on Utah's timing offense more than his own post-up abilities, which are average.

But there are times to put that humble stuff aside and admit you're the man. Jordan does. When the Bulls need a basket, Jordan steps out of the offense, demands the ball and takes it to the rim. That Malone doesn't, or hasn't, is one of the biggest differences between he and Jordan.

The Jazz needs that from Malone. As strange as it sounds, Utah needs him to have a bigger ego.

He had one on Friday, although not so much late in the fourth quarter, when he had only one basket in the last six minutes. But his 17-point third quarter gave the Jazz life and stunned the Bulls. Suddenly, he was driving to the basket, dominating Rodman, setting the tone.

Why did he suddenly come alive? Who knows? He has always been one of the NBA's stranger ducks. He was afraid to play with Magic Johnson after Johnson contracted the virus that causes AIDS. He said he would start packing a gun because of all the crazy fans out there.

He is the Truckstop Tommy wanna-be who spent a day off last week driving around with an Illinois state trooper "weighing trucks."

When reporters giggled at his low-scale idea of fun, Malone got defensive.

"You guys laugh all the hell you want to, but it was a fun day for me," Malone said. "I don't care what you do on your day off."

Point made.

Come to think of it, that's just what Utah needs from him now: Points made. Lots of them. A repeat of Friday's performance. Two repeats, in fact.

It's that or bust for the Jazz now.

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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