Spunky Utah Jazz to Be Tested Against Mighty Bulls

There have been times during this, the National Basketball Association's 50th anniversary season, when exasperation with slowdown tactics has outrun high-octane excitement.

The league must be delighted, therefore, that the NBA Finals started Sunday with two teams - the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz - capable of delivering a strong valedictory to this historic campaign.

Chicago led the league in scoring during the regular 82-game season with 8,458 points, for an average of 103.1 points per game. Utah turned in an identical average while scoring just four fewer points.

For the defending champion Bulls, who are seeking their fifth title in seven years, facing Utah provides a welcome switch after pounding out a victory over Miami in the Eastern Conference championship series.

Some might have called that an exercise in boring-ball or winning ugly for the way in which Miami's grind-it-out strategy threatened to ruin the league's good offensive name and race-horse reputation.

In particular, the media pointed to a 75-68 Chicago victory as a low watermark. In fact, it was the lowest-scoring playoff game in NBA history, a shocking development considering the old mark was set in 1955, when the two-handed shot was still around.

Perhaps looking for a rush of excitement after this debacle, in which both teams made roughly one third of their shots, Chicago's Michael Jordan went out and played 48 holes of golf in a day, presumably while riding in a cart.

The current Finals continue Wednesday in Chicago, but when they shift to Salt Lake City later this week, it's doubtful that Jordan will feel any urge to scale the surrounding peaks. The job of beating the guys in the mountain-motif jerseys should be sufficiently challenging.

Jordan never needs much to get his competitive juices flowing, and certainly not when the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player, Utah's broad-shouldered forward Karl Malone, suits up opposite the City of Broad Shoulders Bulls.

Malone edged Jordan in this year's MVP race, which resulted in the second closest election ever. Jordan, a four-time winner, may believe he deserved the honor once again, and will use the Finals as an opportunity to prove it.

After all, he extended his record number of seasons leading the league in scoring to nine, beating out Malone (29.6 average to 27.4), and led the Bulls to 69 wins, just three shy of the record total they established a year ago. Malone, meanwhile, led Utah to a franchise-best 64 victories.

Following the midseason All-Star break, however, the Jazz produced the better record, and in the playoffs they have looked especially sharp in laying waste to Los Angeles, beating first the Clippers (3 games-to-0) then the Lakers (4-1), before eliminating Houston and its Big Three superstars of Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Charles Barkley, (4-2.) Now Utah has to contend with a similarly high-profile Chicago trio, namely Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman.

As long as these three are in uniform and at full strength, it's hard to pick against them. In the current playoffs, they have lost only twice in the opening three rounds while eliminating Washington, Atlanta, and Miami.

Pat Riley, Miami's coach, is convinced that the Bulls have the players, coach (Phil Jackson), and system needed to remain on top. "I think they will always be the team until obviously they are not," Riley says with Yogi Berra logic.

Perhaps more to the point, Riley concludes that the Bulls should prevail until Jordan retires. That could conceivably occur after this season if Chicago's front office can't figure out how to retain Jackson, whose differences with management have become a sub-plot during the postseason.

Jordan has said he has no desire to start anew under another coach at this point in his career.

Another sub-plot of the playoffs has been the volatile behavior of Rodman, who had been assessed a raft of technical fouls and several ejections leading up to the Finals. His actions surely will be well monitored by the league and game officials.

When focused on his job, though, Rodman is a nonpareil rebounder, having won a record sixth straight NBA title in that department this season.

When it comes to superstars, the Jazz (who began 23 years ago in New Orleans) counter with not only Malone, but playmaking guard John Stockton as well. The two have spent their entire careers with Utah, and been teammates on two-gold medal-winning US Olympic Dream Teams, joining Pippen both times and Jordan in 1992. Stockton's buzzer-beating 3-pointer eliminated Houston and placed the oft-frustrated Jazz in their first NBA Finals.

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