If the goal was to bring the Houston Rockets to Salt Lake City as confident and arrogant as an oil tycoon, that mission was accomplished just before the Jazz left Texas air space late Wednesday night.
If the Rockets didn't have a good night's sleep it wasn't the Jazz's fault. The Jazz played championship caliber basketball, they gave them their best shot, they threw the kitchen sink at them, they never blinked, they refused to back down - choose your cliche - and then they lost the second game of their Western Conference championship series, 104-99."They should put this one in a can," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "If you want to see a playoff game, here it is."
Easy for him to say. Not only was this prime time, as-good-as-it-gets basketball, but it was his team that won. Later this summer, it isn't at all difficult imagining Rudy T. turning over a nice t-bone on the grill and flipping on the VCR, already pre-set to Game 2 of the Utah series.
First there will be the footage of Hakeem Olajuwon receiving his 1993-94 NBA Most Valuable Player trophy from commissioner David Stern in a pregame ceremony. Then there will be the footage of the last nine and a half minutes of the game, when the Jazz almost never missed . . . and the Rockets were even better than that.
The playoffs had come from Rodman and Madonna to this. Best Shot for best shot, Mozart vs. Beethoven basketball. Or, more specifically, Malone vs. Olajuwon basketball. At one point down the stretch the Jazz's Karl Malone and the Rocket's Olajuwon traded points back and forth, back and forth, for two full minutes and a combined eight possessions.
In all, the Jazz converted on 12 of their 17 possessions in the game's final 9:30 - and the Rockets converted on 14 of 16.
Clutch City was in real business.
With three minutes to play, Malone and Olajuwon let everybody else back in the game and the give and take continued. The Jazz might have been able to take control for good if not for a key timeout called by Tomjanovich at the 1:34 mark.
It had been more than a minute since Olajuwon scored, which seemed lengthy by Olajuwon MVP Night standards, and when the Houston center signaled to the bench that the pace was suddenly making him very tired, Tomjanovich alertly called for the break in the action.
"I called the time out and took some deep breaths with him," said Tomjanovich.
After which he sent him back out on the court so he could, within another 14 seconds, make a pair of free throws, and, 40 seconds after that, score on an inside move that would finally ensure that the Rockets would fly to Utah on the wings of a 2-0 series lead.
It was no wonder Olajuwon got tired toward the end. It had been a long and glorious day. He awoke to banner headlines congratulating him on becoming the NBA's latest MVP, and all during the day he heard himself eulogized in various ways. He kept hearing adjectives he didn't know existed. By the time he got to the gym, he was checking to make sure he was still alive.
After Stern gave him his trophy and praised him for exhibiting "an elegance and grace that's special," Olajuwon didn't know whether to play ball or just stand there and pose.
Sometimes such circumstances can conspire against the honoree, of course, and, for their part, the Jazz were certainly hoping that would be the case. But Olajuwon chose to live up to his press clippings, which wasn't easy. In all he had 41 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, three blocked shots, one steal, a franchise playoff record 13-of-13 from the free throw line, and no less than 14 points down the fourth quarter stretch.
"I think he deserved MVP," deadpanned Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who had earlier in the day eulogized Olajuwon, in his own way, by saying he knew how to stop him from scoring against you.
"Trade for him," said Sloan.
That compliment would be trumped later, when Sloan and the Jazz threw their best - well, close to their best - at the celebrating Rockets and their celebrated center, and it still wasn't enough. The Rockets won't be hard to identify when Game 3 convenes Friday night in the Delta Center. They'll be the team looking like they just climbed Everest on a bad day, and made it. They'll be the team looking like they flew in without a plane. They'll be the team that didn't erase the tape of Wednesday night's game.