HOUSTON — The series hadn't even started, but the talking wasn't about to wait.
Friday, one day before the NBA's Western Conference's 4-5 seed matchup between Utah and Houston got under way, Rockets All-Star Tracy McGrady called out Jazz small forward Matt Harpring.
"He's a nasty player on the defensive end," the Houston Chronicle quoted McGrady as saying. "They've got a couple. Taking cheap shots at times, sometimes getting away with it, sometimes not, taking hard fouls. But that's part of the game. They allow it. It's something we can deal with.
"They're really good at it," he added. "That's been (Jazz coach) Jerry Sloan's teams for years."
According to a Houston television reporter questioning Sloan, Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy also referred "in an endearing way" to Jazz reserves Harpring, Paul Millsap, Jarron Collins and Gordan Giricek as "the bully boys."
Another TV reporter quoted Van Gundy as having called them "bully brothers."
Saturday morning, about 10 hours before tip-off, Harpring and the Jazz responded.
"The playoffs have started," Harpring said, anticipating the best-of-seven series. "You know, the words started going between teams, coaches.
"I do what I do. Whatever happens, happens," he added. "I'm just going to play my game that I played all year. You know, I'm gonna play hard — and if people think that is dirty, or too aggressive, whatever."
Harpring had earlier caught wind of McGrady's specific words.
"I heard Tracy called me out as being a dirty player," he said. "That's the farthest thing I ever want to be in this league. I just play hard."
Addressing the subject again Saturday, McGrady suggested he didn't mean to disrespect Harpring — yet stuck by his assertion.
"That's his rep," he said.
"He goes all out. He leaves everything on the floor," McGrady added. "I respect that."
Told McGrady suggested, with a smile, that Sloan seems to have a school for teaching such play, Harpring shrugged.
"Jerry has a certain style of play that he tries to enforce here with the Jazz," the Jazz vet said. "It's always been that way.
"You know, (retired point guard John) Stockton, he played hard, and he was regarded as a dirty player. You know, (retired power forward) Karl Malone, he played hard every night, and he definitely could have been a dirty player," Harpring added. "But it's just the way you play the game. If you play with passion, and you play hard, sometimes that happens."
As for the "bully" characterization, Harpring had a hearty laugh.
"I think that's hilarious, honestly," he said. "You know, Jarron (Collins) is far from a bully. And Giri (Giricek), I don't know if anyone would ever called him a bully, either."
Then Harpring turned serious.
"I don't think there have been certain games where we said, 'OK, we're gonna be (real) bullies today,' and go out there and try to get someone hurt or do something wrong," he said. "We don't play that way. We play the game the right way."
As for Millsap, he smiled when asked what it's like to be a bully.
"It's good to be something, I guess," he said. "I'm not sure, really, what that meant. But we'll accept it.
"Our coach is a hard-nosed coach," Millsap added. "You know, he wants us to go out there and play hard. And when we go out there and play hard, all-out, a few times you're gonna accidentally run over people. But that's how we play. That's our thing, and that's what we'll continue to do."
That's sweet music to the Jazz coach.
In fact, Sloan thinks some of players are not nearly tough enough — and probably wouldn't mind if more tried to take your lunch money.
"I'm amazed people even talk about it with our team," he said. "If we're gonna grow, we have to ... learn how to be tougher for 48 minutes."
Where Sloan does draw a line, however, is at the tag applied years ago to Stockton and Malone.
"I really never have understood why when we had John and Karl, they called us a dirty team a lot of times," he said. "You've got a 6-foot guard (Stockton) setting a screen on a 7-foot guy — and he cries about it."
Now it's Sloan's turn to laugh out loud.
"And they think that's dirty basketball," he said.
"When I played for Coach (Dick) Motta (in Chicago), he taught us how to set screens to try to help somebody else. If you don't have a lot of talent, you better be able to set a screen. That's what I had to do."
Still, Sloan gets why the subject was broached so soon.
"I don't think (physical play) works to our advantage at all," he said. "If anything, it probably gets us in more trouble — because people do complain about it ... They're looking for an edge."