Wednesday was just another playoff practice day, and for both the Spurs and the Jazz it was business as usual. It's just that they go about their business in different ways.
The Jazz went to great lengths to avoid saying anything that could remotely be construed as overconfidence, while the Spurs sounded like a team trying to talk itself back from the brink of extinction.The most strident thing the Jazz said all day was when Karl Malone suggested he didn't want to return to San Antonio. "I don't mind going to San Antonio to visit," he said, "but I don't want to go there for the fifth game of a series on their home court."
Meanwhile, the Spurs mustered their bravado as they prepared to face the Jazz Thursday night in the Delta Center. Dennis Rodman, back after a one-game suspension, was even offering a forecast. "We win (Thursday) night and their a-- is grass," said Rodman. "It's as simple as that. Their a-- is grass."
Certainly the grass has been greener on the Jazz side of the court thus far. They lead the best-of-five series 2-1. A win over the Spurs Thursday would give them the series win and move them into the second round, possibly as early as Saturday at Seattle.
But the Jazz are known for taking the standard "one-game-at-a-time" position, and now is no time to change. "You get in the playoffs, if you don't have tunnel vision as to what you're trying to do as a group, you're not going to win many games," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "We haven't done anything yet."
After being wiped out in Game 1 at the Alamodome, the Jazz have been bulletproof ever since. They beat the Spurs by 12 on Saturday and by 33 on Tuesday. The latter came with Rodman missing, having been suspended by the NBA for his part in a rough Saturday game that included six technical fouls, two ejections and two flagrant fouls.
By comparison, Tuesday's game was a grade-school picnic: only a single technical - to Lucas - and no flagrants. "That was the first game in the series when we've seen a basketball game and not a lot of other stuff," said Malone.
"It was getting so you could do anything. If a guy wasn't bleeding or dead, nothing got called," added the Jazz's Tom Chambers. "Most players just want to go play."
Thursday's matchup carries with it more than ordinary intrigue. Though the Jazz obviously have an advantage playing at home, the Spurs have Rodman back after the suspension. The Spurs hope the return of their emotional leader will get them back in contention. "He could be a spark for them," said Malone. "But he could be one for us, too."
"I don't know how much difference Dennis will make," said Spurs' coach John Lucas. "I don't think it will make that much difference. We out-rebounded them and did everything we needed to do to win against them. We just haven't made any shots."
The Spurs will undoubtedly need more than emotion to turn the momentum around. Guard/forward Dale Ellis, normally a major factor, has made just seven of 24 field-goal attempts (.292). "It's real difficult when the ball doesn't go in the hole for us," continued Lucas.
"What I'm worried about now is making my jump shots. That game (Game 3) is over with," said Ellis.
While neither team is expected to go to the NBA finals, both would love to advance past the first round. The Spurs have been eliminated in the first round in two of the last four years and in the second round two other times. The Jazz have been eliminated in the first round in three of the past five seasons.
Whether Rodman's return is enough to inspire the Spurs out of their shooting slump (.383 for three games) is anyone's guess. "I don't really want to guess how they feel in regards to that," said the Jazz's John Stockton.
Lucas says he isn't giving up hope of a victory, sending the series back to the Alamo City. "I'm a coach," he said, "who likes to go against all odds."