Never let them tell you there are no shortcuts. That’s ad-campaign wisdom concocted to sell you $150 shoes and such.
Shortcuts work. Shortcuts rule.
The Seattle SuperSonics took one a week ago, not long after they’d downsized the defending champion Houston Rockets out of the NBA playoffs. Eager for a new victim to prepare for, the Sonics chose Utah - even though the Jazz were still five days shy of disengaging themselves from the San Antonio Spurs.
“Oh, they decided,” John Stockton said, feigning - or maybe not - a little indignity. “I wish they’d have filled us in. We were still busting a hump trying to get here.”
It was common sense, a calculated risk. The terror of first-round failure subdued, the Sonics certainly weren’t going to be frightened by the prospect of the soft old Spurs. Besides, Sonics coach George Karl already knew who the next boogeyman was.
So Karl skipped ahead to that chapter, and on Saturday the Sonics skipped past Utah 102-72 in the first game of the Western Conference finals - a romp so eerily cloneish to the one two weeks ago over Houston that no doubt we’ll be up to our knees in brooms, so thick will be the anticipation come Monday’s rematch at KeyArena.
Premature, but not impossible. The way the Sonics are humming right now, another sweep is no longer the least likely scenario.
This was the worst loss in Jazz playoff history and, as we sifted through the debris for clues, Karl Malone - as usual - made it easy on us.
“They kicked our butt,” the Mailman said, “old-fashioned.”
And you thought old-fashioned was supposed to be Utah’s style.
Since the Jazz get blown out rarely, it seemed reasonable to assume fatigue was a factor - the NBA, a wholly owned subsidiary of NBC, mandated a brief 40-hour turn-around from the Spurs series, keeping Mike and Shaq in today’s spotlight dance. Malone dismissed the notion harshly. Karl embraced it, but for a different reason.
“I think the preparation time really did help us,” he said. “Our second unit has been running Utah’s offense about as good as they do and that was really a difference on the defensive end of the court.”
Where the game was won.
Yes, the Sonics broke contact with Utah in the second period during a stretch in which they made 10 straight shots. But that’s also when they ripped the wires out of Utah’s offensive works - to the point that they could not be repaired.
“And everybody here knows what you have to do against Utah,” said Karl, “and that’s contain Stockton.”
He is headed for the Hall of Fame, of course, but even after all these years it is hard to fathom the smallest man left standing in these playoffs as the most dangerous hombre left standing in these playoffs. Yet despite some posturing over the years, that’s exactly how Karl perceives him.
“I don’t know what he ended up with, but for example the two shots he made in the first half were difficult shots - off-balance, high-arc,” Karl noted. “I just think we took his penetration out of the game, which helps their other players play better. Great players make their teammates better, and tonight we controlled him.”
The numbers don’t lie. Those two shots Stockton made in the first half were his only buckets in 10 tries, and his seven assists were almost six less than his playoff average.
“He just wasn’t clicking,” offered the game’s counter-point, Gary Payton. “He just wasn’t in sync and that will happen.”
Payton, meanwhile, eased into a 21-point, seven-assist afternoon, while Shawn Kemp dramatically outplayed Malone. Karl thought the series’ superstars would cancel each other out, but on this day his guys handled the cancellations.
“It sure doesn’t feel good,” Stockton said. “I don’t think there’s any question we’ve got to come back and do the things we do better.”
That’s pass, defend, rebound - all of it. The depth that did in the Spurs also disappeared. Adam Keefe, notably, was shut out, but obviously had a good view of what went on.
“We succeed because guys make good decisions and we didn’t make many,” Keefe conceded. “We weren’t being aggressive enough with the ball, but that can go two ways. Sometimes it’s easy to take the quick jumper rather than take it at somebody, and sometimes it’s not taking the shot when you have the opportunity.”
In any case, both the Sonics and Jazz know it starts with Stockton - and the harassment of Payton and friends will continue apace.
“At this point, there’s just four teams left and life is not going to be easy for John - that’s just a fact,” Keefe said. “That’s something he’s going to have to accept and step up to do more. What we have to do is get ourselves into spots where he can find us. Those were our mental mistakes - not being where he needed us to be. He’s going to be hounded. He’s knows that.”
And this: there’s only one short-cut back into this series.
“Yeah,” said Keefe, “win the next game.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo