('88 Record: 47-35)
When the Jazz and Lakers met in the playoffs last year, the research I'd done started to show its value.
Before the series started, everyone in L.A. was saying that the Lakers would sweep the Jazz or, at worst, take them in five games. I had just gotten the season NBA stats and calculated offensive and defensive ratings for the teams and found out how good the Jazz defense was. What the stats were telling me was that the Jazz would really push the Lakers, taking them to at least six games. Somehow, I got into a modest argument with a stranger at the supermarket over how the series would go. He insisted that the Lakers would sweep; it took me forever just to get him to concede that the Lakers could lose one game. After the first game in the series, which the Lakers completely dominated, I heard louder than ever, "The Lakers are going to stomp 'em!" When the series went seven games with the Lakers barely coming out on top, the critics were converted to Jazz believers. People were actually calling the Jazz the second best team in the league. My research had been duly tested and did well.
That series was a fun one in L.A. After the first game all the newspaper columnists were wondering if the Jazz was going to roll over and play dead for the Lakers so that Magic and Worthy could rest their aching ailing bodies. The optimism of the columnists was blaringly obvious as they could see little in the way of the Lakers making good on Riley's guarantee to repeat.
I missed most of the second game because I had to go to work - real work, work that pays by the hour. When I got back home, Laker radio man Chick Hearn was saying something he would repeat over and over throughout the series: "Stockton is playing real well tonight! He's outplaying Magic!" The Lakers were behind and they would stay behind for the rest of the night. They put in a few three pointers to stay close, but when the Jazz needed clutch shooting or passing or defense, someone would step up. That someone was usually John Stockton. John Stockton became a star bigger than Jack Nicholson that night. The press was asking, "Who is this guy?" They immediately pulled out his season stats and found that he had out-assisted everyone in history from Oscar Robertson to Kevin Porter to Isiah Thomas to Magic Johnson. The fact that L.A. had just 'discovered' such a bright new star obscured how he was in the way of the great Laker guarantee. As the series progressed, L.A. seemed to fall more in love with the point guard named John who was out-Magicking Magic Johnson. Later on, L.A. Times' columnist Scott Ostler decided that "Stockton is a man desperately in need of a nickname. Nobody this good should be running around being called just plain John."
Game Three was another defensive gem by Utah, frustrating L.A. in their offense in every way possible. Blocked shots, steals off the dribble, steals off the pass, hands in shooters' faces, rotating to double-team leaving only the toughest pass open - the Jazz played man-to-man defense better than many college teams can play zone defense. The Lakers worked about as hard as they ever have on offense to get only 89 points - a losing figure.
In Game Four, the Jazz obviously relaxed. After outplaying the Lakers the last two games, Utah seemed to figure that the home court advantage was going to get them through this one. In Games Two and Three, when a Laker cut to the basket, a defender would switch in front of him to cut off the passing lane, but that switching got passive in Game Four and the Jazz paid for it, giving up their series high of 113 points.
Game Five - Does it get any better? Some quotes:
"Great teams make great games. That was a great game. The Lakers and Jazz are great teams," Laker general manager Jerry West.
"I live for this," Magic Johnson.
"If the Lakers do repeat, they'll look back on Game Five and recognize it as the night the West was won," Laker pregame host, Roy Firestone.
"The best game ever...along with the double-overtime Boston-Phoenix game in 1976," Firestone.
The game was close almost the whole way. With 11:30 left in the game, though, the Lakers had stretched to an 88-78 lead. The Jazz came back without delay, going on a 15-4 run that featured their defense, of course, bringing them to a 93-92 lead. Baskets were traded for while with both teams trying valiantly to break away. Any time it looked good for one team, the other would fight back and make it even. For seven minutes the tension kept building. The Lakers were up by one, 108-107, when the Jazz began working the ball around on offense for their final attack. It ended up in Thurl Bailey's hands on the baseline where he went up and made a medium range jump shot, leaving the game at 109-108 Jazz with twelve seconds to play. Time out Lakers. Everyone knew Magic was going to get the ball. Everyone knew that either he or Kareem was going to take the shot. Every time the Lakers had been in similar situations, the choice had been obvious. This time it looked no different. Magic had the ball at the top, then started to drive. Shoot and draw a foul - that's what was expected. But Magic found Michael Cooper, the same Cooper who struggled shooting all year with a field goal percentage below 40%. Cooper got it at the top of the key for an open jumper. He didn't hesitate. It was his only basket of the night. The Lakers added a free throw after stealing a Jazz inbound pass from Marc Iavaroni to make the final score 111-109.
For the Jazz it was a tough loss, one that they could have cried over and said, "We did everything we could. We're just not good enough. It's over." They definitely didn't take it that way, however. If anything, the Jazz found out how good they could eventually be in that game. They saw that they could push the World Champs on their home court not just once, but twice. They could see themselves as the next champions.
The Jazz promptly went back to the Salt Palace and romped over the Lakers in Game Six as badly as the Lakers have ever been beaten. Some reported that Chick Hearn put the game in the refrigerator (said it was over) the earliest he ever has for the Lakers. Another chapter in the L.A.-Stockton love story was written when Hearn said, "No matter who wins this series, John Stockton's got to be the MVP." A lot of Laker fans just nodded their heads.
By Game Seven, it looked like the adrenaline was running short for the Jazz. The Lakers still had the fear of losing going for them and the Jazz just got tired of the chase. Everyone in L.A. was glad the Lakers won, but they also seemed sad that the Jazz had to be eliminated. That series was fit for The Finals.
The last two years the Jazz have easily had the best defense in the NBA. No one's really been close to them. The main reason for this has obviously been Mark Eaton. Over the last two years, Eaton has had no individual competition for the blocked shot leadership and has actually outblocked the whole Golden State team by 21. There is a lot of defensive talent around Eaton, but without him, it is a vulnerable defense.
The other big reason for the tremendous defensive stats this team has put up is the way it rotates on defense. Pat Riley was complaining throughout the series with the Jazz that they were playing a zone defense, but he rarely got the call. In a sense, the Jazz were playing a zone, but it was a match-up zone, heavy on the match-up, light on the zone. In college, most match-up zones you see are heavy on the zone and defenders can be caught being indecisive on staying with a player cutting through the middle.
The Jazz defense is devised to keep Eaton down low in the key. They don't have much trouble doing that even when Eaton's man plays outside as Eaton can usually take someone else who is playing close to the basket and send a defender out to his former man. The other players fight through picks a lot like in a normal man-to-man, but exceptional quickness keeps them from getting burned too much. The Jazz doesn't have to play that sort of straight man-to-man too long, though, because they double-team or entice dangerous passes by laying off defenders early in a possession. In that way, the Jazz are one of the few teams to force a quick pace with their defense. Rick Pitino's press in New York and, to a limited extent, Denver and the Lakers also can force a quick pace with defense.
After admiring the Jazz defense throughout the Laker series, I began to wonder how good their defense was in comparison to, say, the Boston Celtics of '85-86. Taking it one step farther, I've listed below the top fifteen defenses of the '80's.
The top three teams listed had statistically the best defenses of the decade. In looking at the stats and personnel of each club, I could not say definitively that any one of them was the best, but I concluded that those three were one small step above all the rest.
The second group of teams all had great defenses, but didn't quite match the stats of the top three. Subjectively, I think some in that second group are better than others, but not by enough to worry about or to argue over. Statistically, the Philadelphia team of '83 doesn't belong in there, but that team had three people on the First Team All-Defensive Team and, perhaps more importantly, had its defensive stats diluted somewhat because it won so easily in that season that garbage time came early in their games.
Def. League Rating Team Rtg. Avg Diff. Lg.Avg. Floor% Play % W/L NJN'83 97.4 103.2 5.8 .9438 .501 .430 49-33 PHI'81 98.2 103.8 5.6 .9461 .512 .430 62-20 PHO'81 97.6 103.8 6.2 .9403 .505 .431 57-25 SEA'80 99.2 103.5 4.3 .9585 .516 .440 56-26 MIL'82 100.6 105.4 4.8 .9545 .519 .444 55-27 SEA'82 100.6 105.4 4.8 .9545 .528 .451 52-30 NYK'83 98.5 103.2 4.7 .9545 .508 .435 44-38 PHI'83 99.6 103.2 3.6 .9614 .526 .445 65-17 PHO'83 98.4 103.2 4.8 .9535 .512 .434 53-29 WAS'83 97.7 103.2 5.5 .9438 .514 .441 42-40 NYK'84 101.5 106.0 4.5 .9575 .514 .445 47-35 BOS'86 100.9 105.6 4.7 .9555 .519 .450 67-15 MIL'86 101.0 105.6 4.6 .9564 .514 .438 57-25 UTA'87 101.9 106.5 4.6 .9568 .522 .440 44-38 UTA'88 101.6 106.2 4.6 .9567 .520 .438 47-35Something to notice about this list is that only two of these teams won the Championship - the '86 Celtics and the '83 Sixers. Of the thirteen remaining teams, only one (Washington '83) did not make it to the playoffs. The other twelve teams had only limited success in the playoffs as none made it to the Finals and nine of the twelve lost to good, though not great offensive teams. Though I haven't checked, I'm fairly sure that a similar list of the best offenses would have a few more champions among them, hinting that a good offense is more important than a good defense in for a title. Unfortunately, such a list would not mean much because the Lakers would make up a good part of it. Eventually, I'll extend the lists farther back in history and perhaps we'll learn something from them.
What does this all mean for the Utah Jazz next year? Not much. All it shows me is that they have one hell of a defense. It doesn't say anything about their chances in the future. If the Jazz has an opportunity to give up a little defense to get some more offense, they obviously should. Getting rid of a no-offense center like Eaton would be giving up a lot of defense and they'd have to get a lot more offense in return to break even. A lineup of Stockton, Eaton, Karl Malone, Thurl Bailey, and a good offensive off guard would probably make this a championship team. Where that off guard is going to come from is a mystery right now. Bob Hansen doesn't look like he'll ever be a scorer. Darrell Griffith has been injured so much and really hasn't shot well since '85. The Jazz will have to get lucky in the draft or pull off a Dale Ellis-for-Al Wood-like trade to get that shooting guard. I just don't see it happening. This team should win 50 to 53 games next year, but its lack of both a bench and a fourth scorer will hurt again in the playoffs.
Basketball Hoopla, © 1988, L. Dean Oliver