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Rockets, Jazz match styles, strengths in physical finals
By EDDIE SEFKO
Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle
SALT LAKE CITY -- Years ago, somebody must have done one of those cloning
After the original was duped, the two basketball teams were separated,
destined to wander the Western Conference landscape for years unknown to each
They grew up to become the Rockets and the Utah Jazz.
Now, this pair of separated-at-birth twins is meeting in the playoffs for the
third time in four seasons. And don't be surprised if they still look awfully
similar when they step onto the Delta Center court tonight for Game 1 of the
Western Conference finals. Classy organizations. Level-headed but
strong-willed superstars. Rock-solid coaches. A salt-of-the-earth series
starting along the shores of the Great Salt Lake.
There are four teams standing in the playoffs, and the Rockets or the Jazz
will be in the NBA Finals next month.
The Rockets no longer have Seattle's full-court harassment and nagging traps
with which to deal. Instead, they get a dose of their own medicine as Utah
will throw relentless execution and half-court intensity, along with a
strapping defense, at the Rockets.
"We know them well," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said Sunday heading into
the best-of-seven series. "We've battled them in the playoffs before, and we
have been successful.
"They are a lot like us. They are a post-up team, and when you double-team,
they try to get the payoff. It's going to be different (than the Seattle
series). I don't think they'll run the different trick defenses that Seattle
did. That was very aggravating, dealing with a defense that wouldn't let us
run our plays. We've got to go review all our plays because we couldn't run
any of them against Seattle."
That's not an exaggeration.
But the Rockets survived the seven-game battle against Seattle, and it was so
tough and entertaining that it deserves to be analyzed and scrutinized for
weeks to come.
But there's no time. Because the Rockets needed seven games to dispatch the
Sonics, they got just one day off before opening the Utah series. The Jazz
will have had a week between games when the teams tip off tonight.
Nevertheless, the Rockets think they might have an edge going into Game 1 --
their recent survival training against Seattle.
"We need four wins to get to that final round," Eddie Johnson said. "You can
see it now. And I feel like if we play like we're capable of playing -- and
Seattle has gotten us extremely ready for this -- we'll be OK."
Added Charles Barkley: "The Seattle series was a great series. It was a
grueling series, very demanding mentally and physically."
Mentally because the Rockets had to make so many adjustments to counter
Seattle's crazy schemes, and physically because it went the limit.
Meanwhile, Karl Malone is fresh from being named the NBA's Most Valuable
Player on Sunday. He also should be fresh, period, along with the rest of the
The Rockets know they have no time for a deep breath. They expect a more
physical series from the Jazz than they got from the more athletic Sonics.
"There's no comparison," Tomjanovich said. "They're way more (physical than
"There's contact on every half-court play. They're setting picks across the
lane, up picks, cross picks, diagonal picks, little guys setting picks on big
"Our guys have to move their bodies to get around them. Malone is tremendous
exploding on those picks. It's just amazing how good they execute tight
little deals. A guy setting a back pick, if you don't bump 'em the right way,
Malone's going to knife right through there.
"Karl's a great player. I have tremendous respect for him and for all their
guys. And their system. I think they do it the right way year after year."
Sort of like the Rockets' staff.
The Jazz has used the pick-and-roll as its bread and butter for years, much
like the Rockets have hung their hat on posting up Hakeem Olajuwon and, now,
Barkley and Clyde Drexler, drawing the double team and passing to open
These systems work for these particular teams.
"Both teams prefer the half-court set," Barkley said. "We've got to be smart,
because they're not going to beat themselves."
Theoretically, the Rockets won't either, although Barkley says that often is
not one of the Rockets' strongest assets.
"Beat ourselves?" Barkley said, repeating the question. "We come close. We
come awful damn close. We're not very smart at times."
Barkley said he, too, expects a brutally tough series physically. The Rockets
have vivid memories of their late-season visit to the Delta Center when the
Jazz won 104-83. The Rockets were whipped physically and ended up with four
technical fouls, a flagrant foul and an ejection of Barkley.
"That was a badly officiated game," Barkley said, "and we got a little
Frustrated to the point that Barkley late in the game lined up in a
three-point stance, defensive-end style. He was trying to get his point
across to the officiating crew that getting through Utah's picks in the paint
is like trying to get to a quarterback through an offensive line.
"They're good at it," Tomjanovich said of the Jazz's pick-and-roll. "Like any
other team that has a pick-and-roll, we have several different ways to play
it. They're going to score some points on it, but we're going to try to knock
down their effectiveness.
"I can't say they're easy to prepare for, but they're a team that will grind
it out, run plays over and over, and as soon as you make a mistake, they get
a layup. It'll look like they're doing the same thing, but they're really
not. They put guys in different positions; they give guys different
responsibilities. And they grind it out. They know what they're looking for
on their offense, and if you give 'em layups, it's hard to beat them."
Johnson reiterated that the Seattle series offered an excellent primer for
the Rockets on how to handle the Jazz.
"I'm not taking anything away from Utah's pick-and-roll," Johnson said. "I
think it's great. But I think Seattle's pick-and-roll is a tougher cover
because of the fact Gary (Payton) is the one looking to score.
"In this respect, John (Stockton) is basically trying to get the ball to
Karl. And we know that. We'd love to see John shoot the ball every time like
"It'll be fun because it's all going to be based on execution. Whichever team
executes the best and takes care of the ball is going to be the victor. They
take care of the ball extremely well. I feel like we can't afford to make
mistakes with the ball. We can't try to force anything."
The Jazz finished the regular season as the No. 1 seed in the Western
Conference. The Rockets were No. 2. Now, they collide. The Rockets beat the
Jazz 4-1 in the conference finals in '94, then overcame a 2-1 deficit in the
first round the following season to win 3-2.
In the second meeting, the Jazz had the home court, just as it does this
"We've got to win at least one game on the road to win this thing now,"
Tomjanovich said. "They've had a great year. They've been with us twice. I'm
sure they know it. And they're going to be ready.
"There will be no taking us for granted, I'm sure. They know what's happened
with us in the past. I'm expecting a hell of a series."
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