Editor’s note: If not for the coronavirus outbreak, the NBA regular season would be over, and the Utah Jazz would likely be in the playoffs right now. In the spirit of postseason fervor, The Salt Lake Tribune is doing a multi-part series on the most impactful playoff runs in Jazz history. Today: Part 2 — 1987-88: Trading haymakers with the champs.
There were five seconds remaining.
Five seconds left for the Utah Jazz to send the game to overtime or, better still, to pull off a stunning victory, one that would shock the basketball world, one that would give them a 3-2 lead and send them back to Salt Lake City with a chance to close out the dynastic and defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, one that would establish a formerly moribund franchise as a team to be reckoned with for years to come.
Up until that point, the Jazz were, if not quite an afterthought, at least mostly out of mind for most basketball fans. Salt Lake City? Mountain time zone? Who cares. They’d made a few playoff appearances in recent years, but hadn’t really made an impression on the national stage.
In the ’80s, though, it didn’t get much more “national stage” than facing the Los Angeles Lakers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy … Jack Nicholson, the Lakers Girls, “Showtime.” This was the big time. As a result of facing mighty L.A., a national spotlight was being shone on the franchise. This was a chance for “Stockton to Malone” to become a fixture in the hoops lexicon, for those players to become acknowledged as among the best in the game, for the organization to prove that it not only belonged, but that it was going places.
And so it was on Tuesday, May 17, 1988, that 17,505 gold-and-purple-clad Lakers fans at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Calif., were on their feet, screaming as Utah forward Scott Roth stood on the right side, looking to inbound the ball, the Lakers up 111-109 with five seconds to play in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Bobby Hansen flashed open for a second, but Byron Scott closed in from behind, and Johnson — defending the inbound — lunged into the would-be passing lane. So instead, John Stockton raced all the way over from the left sideline to take the pass.
With those precious few seconds ticking down, Stockton reversed his field, heading back left. Michael Cooper, a 6-foot-7, long-armed defensive ace, stayed in front, while Johnson immediately abandoned Hansen to pressure Stockton from behind. As Stockton continued driving left across the 3-point line in pursuit of a step ahead that would not come, Roth fired down the right sideline to the baseline, while Hansen drifted to the middle of the court, several feet beyond the 3-point line.
With Karl Malone smothered down low by Mychal Thompson, and Thurl Bailey well-defended in the left corner by Worthy, Stockton finally turned the corner, pulled up at the arc with two seconds left, and rose in the air, his right arm cocked back …
… And the thought racing through Bailey’s mind?
“Why can't it be us in the conference finals?”
Some big changes
Of course, getting to that point in the first place took some doing.
For most of the Jazz’s history, they’d been pretty bad. Beset by shaky financial situations in both New Orleans and during their first years in Utah, they’d never amounted to much. At least until the 1983-84 season, when they shocked prognosticators by putting together an underrated roster that went 45-37, won the Midwest Division title, and strung together a solid showing into the second round of the playoffs.
By 1987-88, though, the team was significantly different. Elite scorer Adrian Dantley had been shipped off to Detroit after one too many run-ins with coach Frank Layden. Point guard Rickey Green, who’d been an All-Star in 1984, had since been supplanted by a young Stockton. Hansen, a little-used rookie for that first playoff team, was now starting five times as often as former lottery pick Darrell Griffith, even if their minutes per game were about the same and the latter was still scoring more. And Bailey quietly stepped into a high-volume sixth-man role to make room in the lineup for Malone, one of the most prodigious, talented, young big men in the league.
With Malone averaging 27.7 points and 12.0 rebounds per game, Stockton contributing 14.7 points, 13.8 assists, and 3.0 steals (and shooting a mind-boggling 57.4% from the field), Bailey pouring in 19.6 points off the bench, and Mark Eaton’s 3.7 blocks per game anchoring the league’s best-rated defensive unit, Utah finished 47-35, earning the Western Conference’s fifth seed and a first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Layden liked his team’s chances because of its commitment to the defensive end.
“We were a very good defensive team that year, as well as anything else,” Layden said. “And that, in the playoffs, becomes becomes even more important — probably more important than the regular season — because your defense is constant, you don’t have an off-night on defense on the road, the road doesn’t affect you as much. Offensively, you can be affected on the road, but not defensively. And I think we were a very good defensive team.”
Bailey agreed, noting that while Malone and Stockton rightly got most of the attention, Eaton was the unsung hero of the group.
“You can't start [talking about that team] without starting with Mark Eaton. I mean, he was our back-in-the-day Rudy Gobert. He was a guy that was the anchor to what we did defensively,” Bailey said. “… You really sometimes took for granted how much you needed Mark, because he was always a guy that took that hit for you.”
That defense shone through. After the Jazz dropped the opener, 108-96 in Portland, they stepped it up thereafter, holding the Blazers to 40.6% shooting in Game 2, and 37.0% in Game 3. Portland shot better in Game 4, but was nevertheless held to just 96 points, as Utah reeled off three straight wins to claim the best-of-five series.
Which set up a matchup with L.A., which featured eventual Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy, who were the defending champions, who had won 62 games that regular season and swept the Spurs in the first round.
Still, though the Jazz were underdogs, Griffith insisted that the group had adopted a collective mentality by that point that they weren’t going to be intimidated by anyone — even the Lakers.
“Yeah, you’ve gotta have an attitude, you’ve got to believe in yourself, and you believe in what got you there — all the practices, going over all the plays and so forth, believing in the scouting report that they put in for us,” Griffith said. “… We let them know that, ‘You’re not going to run over us.’"
Waking up the champs
In Game 1, at the Forum, the Lakers ran over the Jazz.
And past them and through them, too. Utah managed only eight points in the first quarter, was down 24 at halftime, and ultimately got blown out 110-91. Los Angeles shot 53.8% from the field and went to the free-throw line 25 times, making 23. All too easy.
Candidly, Layden admitted his team was outgunned.
“I think they were a little bit better than we were — maybe more than a little bit better than we were,” he said. “In my mind, they might have been the best team in history when you put them all together.”
Not that the Jazz were going to concede that at the time. For Bailey, the pathway forward was simple: “Obviously, the defensive schemes had to change. Any changes that we usually made were to slow down a particular player or players that were killing us.”
And it worked. In Game 2, Abdul-Jabbar made just 3 of 13 from the field, and the Lakers hit just 40.2% overall, as Utah stole a game on the road, 101-97. In Game 3, Eaton stymied Abdul-Jabbar again (3 for 14), as well as his backup, Thompson (3 for 16). The masters of the fast-break who popularized the term “Showtime” this time hit just 42.4% and managed only 89 points, as the Jazz surged to an improbable 2-1 series lead.
“We matched up well. We were tough, too. You know, I remember Jabbar saying to me later on that he was scared to death of Mark Eaton giving him an elbow in the face,” Layden said. “… Of course, he's a great player and a great thing, but, you know, Mark could get up, could body up with him. He wouldn't let him rest. And we kept after them.”
Said Griffith: “We let them know that we were a team to reckon with. You can’t take us lightly. And going into the series, they probably did. And the way we played that series woke them up.”
Indeed, the Lakers, knowing they were on the ropes, bounced back in SLC, shooting better than 52% while limiting the Jazz to 41.5, earning a 113-100 victory to even up the series 2-2 and setting up that pivotal Game 5.
With the series hanging in the balance, Layden tightened up his rotation: Malone, Stockton and Hansen would each play all 48 minutes; Bailey played 44; Eaton logged 37 before fouling out halfway through the fourth quarter. Fifth starter Marc Iavaroni logged 13 minutes. And Roth played those final five seconds. And that was it.
The final minute was a taut, tense affair.
A Stockton steal and downcourt heave to a sprinting Malone for a dunk put Utah up by one with 47 seconds to play. On the other end, Worthy posted up Bailey, spun past him into the middle and dropped in a righty floater to give L.A. the lead with 31 seconds remaining.
The Jazz did not call timeout, inbounding to Stockton, who brought the ball up the left side of the court. Malone came over to set a screen on Scott, Stockton drove right across the free-throw line, into the paint, and threw a bounce pass into the right corner to Hansen, who drove left past a rotating Worthy. Hansen pulled up for a jumper at the right elbow, but a rotating Johnson was in place to challenge the shot. So Hansen, in midair, fired the ball to Bailey who got open when Worthy dived into the paint. Bailey’s short jumper just outside the paint along the right baseline swished through, putting the Jazz up 109-108 with 12 seconds left.
On the other end, Johnson beat Bailey off the dribble, driving right into the lane; with Iavaroni late to react to cut off the path to the hoop, Stockton abandoned Cooper, rushing in from behind to try to steal the ball. Johnson then fired a no-look pass to Cooper — who was 0-for-3 from the field to that point. Still, with no one around him, he settled in a few steps inside the 3-point line and drilled an 18-footer with seven seconds remaining for a 110-109 lead.
“I do remember Michael Cooper … hadn't hit a shot all game, he'd had a bad shooting night,” Bailey recalled with a groan. “And they ran a play and he came off and hit the first shot he'd made the whole game.”
Utah’s attempt to answer saw Iavaroni attempt an inbound throw down low to a posting Bailey, but Worthy slipped the contact, dived in front and intercepted the pass, and was fouled by Bailey with five seconds left — seemingly spelling doom for Utah. The first free throw swished through, but the second caught the back iron, then the front, and came out. Iavroni rebounded, the Jazz called timeout.
Five seconds left.
Roth to Stockton … the reverse-direction … the extended lefty dribble … a pass-back to Hansen not an option because the shooting guard was drifting toward Stockton, well beyond the arc, rather than spotting up … so with two seconds left, Stockton rises, right arm cocked … and with Cooper right in his face, right arm extended to challenge a shot, Stockton flings a jackknife pass to the open Roth.
The pass was so high, however, that Roth had to leap to catch it, land, and try to reset. Before he could get back up for the game-tying shot, the final horn sounded. Even if it had been in time, it sailed over the hoop, and wide left anyway.
“We felt like we deserved to win that game,” Bailey said, the dejection still apparent more than three decades later. “I … That was a pivotal game for us. And you have a game like that, it’s kind of a letdown collectively as a team because you knew you had the world champs on the ropes.”
The series wasn’t officially over yet, of course. Back in Salt Lake City, Utah raced out to a 31-13 lead and cruised to a 108-80 rout of a Lakers team that seemed content to rest its stars a bit and take things back to Los Angeles, believing they would not lose a Game 7 on their home court. And they didn’t, leading the entire way and prevailing 109-98.
“I remember, when it was over, saying, I said to Pat [Riley], 'Well that was fun!' He said, 'It sure was, let's do it again.' That was what big-time basketball was all about. It was played at a very high level,” Layden said. “They were very, very good. They were better than we were — I'm not even pretending they weren't. And probably better-coached, too. But the thing is, we were right there with them, we gave them everything they could handle.”
The Lakers would go on to beat the Dallas Mavericks in seven games in the Western finals, then outlasted the Detroit Pistons — again, in seven games — to become back-to-back champions. The Jazz, on the other hand, had to settle for simply having made an impression.
“That says a lot about you as a team, how good we could be,” Bailey said. “So, yeah, it was a big letdown, but we felt like, not that it was a silver lining, but I think we all knew that that meant something, that we got a lot of respect around the world and around the country. And now people know who the Utah Jazz are. That was a pivotal time for the organization as well, to say we’re not far away.”
• 1991-92: Further than ever, but still coming up short
• 1996-97: Breaking through to the Finals for the first time
• 1997-98: Finals hopes dashed by the Jordan buzzsaw again
• 2006-07: A new-blood group provides some new hope
• 2017-18: From lottery-bound to a sparkling foundation