Originally created 05/31/97

Jazz only as good as West champs?



CHICAGO (AP) - Congratulations are in order for the Utah Jazz. They won the only title that ever meant anything to them - the Western Conference championship - and earned the right to become Bulls' Victim No. 5.

At least that's the conventional wisdom heading into the NBA Finals, which begin Sunday evening at the United Center.

Nobody, the thinking goes, is good enough to knock Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls from their throne. Not even the new MVP and his well-oiled machine of a team.

For those who think the Jazz have a chance and the Bulls aren't as invincible as ever, the early evidence suggests otherwise.

This is about playing basketball in June, the annual time of the year when Michael Jordan, if he's not playing baseball, makes another addition to his jewelry collection.

The Bulls have won four of the last six titles, and this is widely expected to be Jordan's thumb year - his chance to add a fifth ring to the ones already adorning his four other fingers.

The Jazz will be the fifth different Western Conference team to face the Bulls in the finals this decade, and none of the first four - the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland, Phoenix, and Seattle - were even able to make it to a seventh game.

One problem, though.

The Jazz say they're NOT just happy to be here, they're NOT pleased with merely winning the Western title that eluded them so many times before, they're NOT going to roll over like past teams.

"What's most important is to not be satisfied just being there," said Karl Malone, who beat out Jordan for the NBA's MVP award.

The Jazz think they can upset the odds and pull off another stunner, and it wouldn't be their first. After all, few would have predicted Malone's MVP selection.

Utah's 64-18 record was the second-best in the league, and the Jazz had a better record than the Bulls over the second half of the season. Malone even had a higher scoring average than Jordan after the All-Star break.

"They'll represent the West well," Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "They're no fluke, they're the real deal. They have a chance to win the championship, and I'll root for those guys in the finals."

"The Bulls are awesome," Charles Barkley said, "but the Jazz will show up. I'm sure of that."

The teams played twice during the regular season, the Jazz winning the first matchup at home to end Chicago's season-opening 12-game winning streak; the Bulls winning the rematch in January at the United Center.

Five months have passed since that last game, and each team has evolved somewhat.

Chicago's victory in the Jan. 6 game gave the Bulls a 29-4 record - the best in the league at that point. They went on to win 69 games - tying the second-highest total in league history - although they lost three of their final four and failed to record back-to-back 70-win seasons.

Utah's loss on Jan. 6 started a string of four consecutive road losses, dropping the Jazz's record to 23-12. But that also was the last time Utah lost consecutive games, and the Jazz's record of 41-6 over the rest of the season was the best in the league.

"We're going to have our hands full playing against a team that's similar to Miami," Scottie Pippen said. "There's one big guy inside that we have to make work out of a telephone booth every time he touches the ball."

Chicago played three close games in the first round of the playoffs against Washington, winning them all, and then had some difficulty with Atlanta despite winning the series 4-1.

The Bulls were their swaggering, strutting, smiling selves in the Eastern Conference finals against Miami, but Jordan finished the series in a shooting slump and Chicago had trouble scoring points.

The Jazz waltzed past the Clippers in the first round, then beat the Lakers 4-1 in the second round thanks to some favorable officiating and questionable play-calling by Del Harris in the clincher (remember Kobe Bryant's three airballs?).

Utah was blown out only once in the Western Conference finals, losing by 18 to Houston in Game 3, and won the clincher Thursday night behind an impressive fourth-quarter comeback anchored by Stockton.

When it was over, the Jazz celebrated like they had won the championship - whooping it up at center court and then donning commemorative t-shirts and caps usually reserved for teams winning the real title.

Malone even had tears in his eyes as he rejoiced in Utah finally getting out of the West after losing in the conference finals in 1992, 1994 and 1996.

To some, the Jazz looked like a team that had accomplished everything they wanted. But they insisted otherwise.

"All I can say is let's get ready to rumble," Antoine Carr said. "We can celebrate for exactly three hours and then it's time to go to work."

Indeed, the Jazz held a team meeting and strategy session Friday back in Salt Lake City after being mobbed by 15,000 fans who went to the airport at 2 a.m. to greet them as they arrived back from Houston.

"I'm feeling great, man," Carr said with tears in his eyes. "We worked long and hard for it and finally got that chance."

Now the Jazz have to try to do something with that chance.

Otherwise they end up just like the Lakers, Trail Blazers, Suns and Sonics - victims.