For a decade, Utah has boasted one of the NBA's quintessential 1-2 offensive punches in John Stockton's uncanny passing and Karl Malone's inside scoring power.
But entering Sunday's first-round finale, the duo found themselves in the shadow of Portland's "Double S" attack - point guard Rod Strickland and 7-foot-3 Arvydas Sabonis.The Trail Blazers knotted the best-of-5 series with a 98-90 victory in Portland on Wednesday night, with Strickland and Sabonis combining for 52 points.
The winner of Sunday's game goes on to play San Antonio in the second round.
Strickland, with 27 points, made Game 4 his best of the series, in which he is averaging 23 points. Sabonis scored 25 Wednesday - including three 3-pointers. For the series, the 32-year-old rookie from Lithuania, nicknamed "Sabas" by his teammates, has averaged 26 points and 11 rebounds.
"Me and Sabas, we've blended real well together," Strickland said after Saturday's practice. "I have a great feel for him and I think he has a great feel for me."
Portland's court general sees the combo as one of the NBA's best right now. But which is better, Stockton-Malone or Strickland-Sabonis? He diplomatically avoids direct comparisons.
"Obviously, they're one of the best 1-2 punches, especially on that pick-and-roll. Stockton's the best at passing the ball, there's no question about that, and Karl Malone is a great finisher," Strickland said.
Sabonis believes that he and his frontcourt mates had the upper hand in Games 3-4, but won't go beyond that.
"Yes, we played more with understanding, better, in those games," was all he would say.
Portland coach P.J. Carlesimo, whose Blazers lead active NBA teams with 14 consecutive playoff appearances, also was in a diplomatic mood.
"Oh, I don't compare," he said. "But I like the (1-2 punch) we have. I'm very happy with it, but I'm sure (Utah coach) Jerry (Sloan) is very happy with his, too."
For the series, Malone is scoring 28 points a game, but went 17-for-56 in Games 3 and 4 - including just 4-for-16 for 15 points in Wednesday's loss. Stockton, the NBA's career assist leader, was held to 11 points and 11 assists in Game 4, making just three of 13 shots.
Stockton is averaging 12.5 points and - on the strength of 23 in Game 2 - 15 assists so far in the matchup. His shooting has suffered, however, dipping to 39 percent from a regular season average of 54 percent.
Strickland and Sabonis are hitting 47 percent and 45 percent, respectively.
"I have no excuses at all, not one," Malone said. "Never have made them, never will.
"Me playing well, that's what I see as the key to Game 5, plain and simple," he added. "It's always been that way and probably won't change as long as I'm here - but I love it."
As for the Strickland-Sabonis challenge to his and Stockton's status as one of the league's premier duos, Malone is willing to let Sunday's game answer any questions.
"I love the pressure," he insisted. "I don't like to be in this position (forced to Game 5), but I love these kinds of games."
Stockton said that beyond the obvious point guard-big man comparisons, the teams' star duos are worlds apart.
"They're similar in that it's a pair, but other than that it's really different," he said. "The personalities are different, the styles of play, too. But they're awfully good at what they do, I know that."
Neither Stockton nor Malone care to dwell on prospects for Utah repeating its Game 5 debacle against Houston last year - a game the Jazz lost at the Delta Center after having taken a 2-1 series lead - or the two straight losses to Portland in this series.
Indeed, Sloan - whose Jazz have never won the Western Conference in 13 straight playoff appearances - would make such dismissal of recent history a team commandment, if he could.
"We can't be playing backwards, worrying about what happened over there," he said. "We have to be ready to defend and work hard and put everything we have into this one game."