My family moved from North Andover, Massachusetts (suburb north of Boston) to Salt Lake City in August, 1997. Up to that point in my nine-year-old life, I was mostly a hockey kid, with my dad (thankfully) filtering my rooting interests away from Boston sports and toward my family’s nucleus of Toronto. The Raptors were a new, bottom-feeder franchise that inspired no awe in someone my age, and the Celtics, by that point, had my ire as another crappy Boston franchise local TV anchors would never shut up about. All in all, I wasn’t particularly vested in any basketball outcomes.
This would change about nine months after we relocated to Utah. Though this was before today’s hype-driven culture of season-long fanaticism, the buzz in the city as the postseason began for a Jazz team coming off a Finals loss to Michael and the Bulls the previous year was palpable even for a preteen like myself. Stockton and Malone were gods to my group of friends, Jerry Sloan was already a legend, and I quickly developed a favorite player in Jeff Hornacek1. The buzz became a roar as Utah reached the Finals for a rematch with MJ. And of course, any Jazz fan at least my age will recall the heartbreak that came next.
Fast forward 17 years, and I’m the insufferable basketball geek on your computer screen. Can I claim the ’98 Finals were a jumping-off point for my love of the game? No. But they remain my first real basketball memory nonetheless. So to fill some more of the bland month of August, and in keeping with a theme percolating through Jazz Twitter the last few days, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Using old clips, I re-watched the majority of the series, jotting down my thoughts as I went along. Here are some of the better ones, from personal recollections to my usual strategical analysis. I had some fun with this one – hope you enjoy, Jazz fans.
- Ah, the Delta Center. Sorry Energy Solutions, I still call it that and always will. Utahns didn’t get their loud crowd reputation for nothing, either – Bob Costas and Doug Collins open the Game 1 broadcast with a note about Phil Jackson walking out on the court prior to tip-off wearing earplugs.
- Did they seriously get Michael Buffer to come to Utah and yell “Let’s get ready to rumblllllllleeeeee!!!” for the NBA Finals? Yep, they seriously did.
- The Triangle is in action from the get-go, with Chicago entering the ball to the wing and looking for Michael to cut to the post right away. Jerry sends hard doubles:
Of course, when they don’t double, Jordan goes to work:
I wrote earlier this week for Nylon Calculus on Michael’s insane midrange game later in his career; clips like the one above are indicative of just how he was so proficient from that area. He rained turnarounds on any Utah defender foolish enough to try and single-cover him.
- Jackson’s Bulls did all sorts of stuff we recognize as standard in today’s game, the same way Utah’s pick-and-roll attack was ahead of its time. The Bulls posted their talented wings often, pressed for 2-for-1’s at the end of quarters, and stretched the limits of the now-defunct “illegal defense” rule that prevented the sort of Thibs-ian overloading of the strong side we see so frequently today.
- Given my age at the time, my chronology was somewhat off when re-watching the series. For instance, I recalled there was a single overtime game in the series, but not that it was Game 1. I also thought I remembered the series being 2-2 before the Bulls took the next two games, but this was also incorrect – the Bulls led 3-1 before losing Game 5 and then…well, you know.
- That Game 1 overtime win came after the Jazz blew an eight-point lead to start the fourth quarter, and the points discrepancy in the final quarter was a huge factor in the outcome of the series. In six games, the Bulls outscored Utah by a whopping 39 points in the fourth, or over six points per quarter. This likely showcased Chicago’s top-heavy team construct – Utah’s depth guys like Bryon Russell, Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson were superior to their Bulls counterparts, especially with Dennis Rodman suffering from a finger injury and limited. But Michael and Scottie, the former in particular of course, brought their games up a notch in these final periods and were too much for the Jazz.
- Hornacek and Steve Kerr could flat-out shoot the ball, man. This was before a time where guys with their skill sets would be mostly limited to distance specialists, and they were normal members of the offensive schemes – albeit members who were expected to shoot the ball anytime they were the least bit open. Check out both guys’ red hot shot charts, courtesy of Austin Clemens:
- The Bulls ran an absolutely insane number of post sets for Michael, and with good reason. But this was an element of the game back then that wouldn’t translate as well today – offenses, especially elite ones, just have to be more diverse to succeed. Great defensive coaches are too smart not to solve such simplistic attacks, and increased defensive flexibility in the rulebook would play a role as well. But that aside, it’s an absolute marvel to watch MJ in the post; his footwork, balance, and timing might never again be matched for a wing player, as hard as Kobe may have been trying for the last decade and a half.
- Stockton deservedly gets most of the praise among this Utah team for his playmaking abilities, but both Malone and Hornacek were vastly underrated as far as basketball IQ and floor sense. Mailman averaged nearly four dimes a game for the series, including a few masterpieces like this:
Hornacek, for his part, always had a seemingly psychic connection with Stockton. The two would frequently connect for pretty give-and-go plays:
- Don’t think I’ve forgotten Stock, either – the guy was masterful for so long, and it’s possible we even somewhat underrate things like his speed and abilities with the ball 15 years later. He didn’t have a good series shooting (just 22 percent from deep and under 10 points a game), but he remained a catalyst for Utah’s offense, frequently blowing by Chicago guards even at 35. And of course, the chemistry with Malone and his ability to keep the defense off-balance was ever-present:
- To be completely honest, the first five games of this series blur together in my memory somewhat. I was about as busy as a nine-year-old could be back then, playing four sports and active in all sorts of extra-curricular activities when not in school – I may have even missed one or two of the earlier games. But Game 6, like I’m sure it does for every true Jazz fan who can recall it, stands out vividly. It was truly a watershed moment, despite the negative outcome; I remember watching on my parents’ bedroom TV, feeling something I’d never experienced before – this was the first time a team I supported had ever been in such a high-stakes situation. I knew all about Michael by now, and even as a child with no grasp whatsoever on basketball strategy, I remember wondering aloud, “Why do the Jazz keep letting him get the ball?”
- Yeah, we’re going there…Jazz fans of a particularly biased nature may want to avert their eyes here: It wasn’t a push-off. Watch the play. Now watch it again:
Sorry folks, but this isn’t a foul in the NBA. Isiah’s stupid comments and my fandom aside, it just isn’t. Expecting that offensive foul call on Michael freaking Jordan with five seconds left in an elimination Finals game is almost as ludicrous as…well, as insinuating that Michael freaking Jordan would have done anything but drain that shot even if Russell had been right up in his face. Are you one of those people who believes in alternate timelines? Michael made that shot in every single one of them.
What a series. There were highs (Game 1 overtime win looked like a turning point after the previous Finals), lows (54 points in Game 3), and even both within the same minute or so of play (Stockton’s ice-cold triple in Game 6, followed by Jordan’s noted heroics). And beyond the pure excitement it brings back, going through the games again is such an intriguing exercise for a nerd like me – the game has changed so much in less than two decades since, and observing this dichotomy through the eyes of someone so conditioned to today’s game is really interesting. What are some of your favorite Jazz memories?
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