Editor’s note: If not for the coronavirus outbreak, the NBA Finals would be underway 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. Part 1 — 1983-84: The Jazz save professional basketball in Utah. Part 2 — 1987-88: Trading haymakers with the champs. Part 3 — 1991-92: A huge step forward, but still coming up short. Part 4 — 1996-97: Finally breaking through, only to suffer heartbreak. Part 5 — 1997-98: A tumultuous season sees unfinished business stay that way. Part 6 — 2006-07: A different cast of characters propels the franchise forward.
For two straight decades, the Utah Jazz had been the epitome of consistency in the NBA — 20 consecutive trips to the postseason, Stockton-to-Malone joining the basketball lexicon, hard-nosed defense and pick-and-roll offense as predictably reliable as Christmas falling on Dec. 25.
And then … John Stockton retired … Karl Malone went ring-chasing with the Lakers for a year … and then retired … the bulk of the team’s recognizable core went their separate ways.
And for the first time in forever, the Jazz were a team without an identity, a group with more questions than answers. It would take three years of wandering in the basketball wilderness before they found their way.
Coach Jerry Sloan did arguably some of his finest work in 2003-04, coaxing an overmatched roster widely expected to be among the league’s worst to a shockingly competent 42-40 record, though a late swoon ended their playoff streak. That summer, the front office added big men Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur in free agency, though injuries to Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko, plus the complete lack of a starting-level point guard, sent the team spiraling to a 26-56 mark in 2004-05.
Still, that enabled them to select star point guard Deron Williams third overall in the subsequent NBA draft, then add high school star C.J. Miles early in the second round. And though Boozer missed all but 33 games of the 2005-06 season, the young team still fought its way to a respectable 41-41 mark.
Utah had fallen short of the postseason for a third consecutive year, but team executives were determined not to let that streak get to four, and went about overhauling the roster and upgrading the overall talent level.
For starters, they drafted Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap — a pair of rookies who would go on to have solid seasons off the bench. Then, on July 13, 2006, vice president of basketball operations Kevin O’Connor gave the Jazz a jolt of veteran savvy, shipping Devin Brown, Keith McLeod and Andre Owens to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for Derek Fisher, who had just averaged a career-best 13.3 points per game, to go along with 4.3 assists and 39.7% shooting from 3-point range.
“We felt like we really needed to add a veteran to the team. He had a career year last year,” O’Connor told reporters. “We think his leadership and his playing ability is going to help us, especially in close games.”
Out went Kris Humphries, Greg Ostertag, Milt Palacio and Robert Whaley; in came Lou Amundson, Rafael Araujo, Dee Brown and Roger Powell. And just like that, the Utah Jazz once again had a team somewhat in line with what the perception of a Utah Jazz team should be.
Still, while there was talent, there was also a fair amount of inexperience, to say nothing of lingering injury concerns. In its 2006-07 NBA season preview, Bleacher Report called Utah “a team on the rise,” and predicted they’d win 45 games and finish second in the Northwest Division. ESPN polled 10 of its basketball personalities, and they had the Jazz finishing anywhere from fourth (Tim Legler, Chris Sheridan) to 14th (Greg Anthony) in the Western Conference.
“Can Boozer play the whole season? Who's going to play shooting guard? Can Okur have another great season?” Anthony wrote. “Regardless, I don't see this being a playoff team.”
Ushering in a new era
Greg Anthony was wrong.
With a loaded (and mostly healthy) frontcourt of Okur, Boozer and Kirilenko, plus Fisher and an emerging D-Will in the backcourt, Utah burst out of the gate by winning 12 of its first 13 games, then went on to claim the Northwest title, rack up 51 wins, and earn the fifth-best record in the Western Conference — behind 67-win Dallas, 61-win Phoenix, 58-win San Antonio, and 52-win Houston.
The new blood had seemingly ushered in a new era.
Still, they would have to prove it — and they’d have to do it first against the postseasonally-ubiquitous Rockets.
Though the Jazz were technically the No. 4 seed and the Rockets No. 5 on account of Utah winning its division and Houston placing third in the Southwest, the home-court advantage would reside in Texas, owing to the Rockets’ better record.
That proved problematic initially for the Jazz, as Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming & Co. raced out to a 2-0 series lead. Utah bounced back with a pair of wins in Salt Lake to tie the series, then the teams traded home victories to set up a pivotal Game 7 in Houston.
Boozer had 35 points, 14 rebounds and five assists, Williams added 20 points and 14 assists, and the Jazz utilized seven offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter — including two from Boozer in the final minute — to escape with a 103-99 victory. It marked the franchise’s first playoff series victory since 2000.
“All we had to do was stay focused," Boozer said afterward. “If we had broken down like before, missed a couple more assignments, missed a couple more shots, what have you, they’d be up here celebrating instead of us.”
More good news would follow, as the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors pulled off a shocking upset of MVP Dirk Nowitzki and the high-powered Mavs.
Though those plucky Warriors would forever earn a place in their fans’ hearts for making their “We Believe” mantra justified for a time, the Jazz would ultimately prevent them from felling a second straight superior opponent. Game 1 was close, and Game 3 maintains a certain cachet to this day for Baron Davis’ highlight-reel throwdown over Kirilenko, but a Utah team growing in confidence by the game ultimately proved too much.
In the clinching Game 5, the Jazz were far from their peak — committing 25 turnovers and missing 11 of their first 22 free-throw attempts — but their dominance on the boards and their steady nerves down the stretch (their last 12 points all came on free throws) saw them pull away for a 100-87 win that put the team in the Western finals for the first time since 1998.
“I don’t think anybody really knew, including ourselves, how good our team could be,” said Fisher, the young team’s elder statesman, who scored 11 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter.
But they’d find out for sure against San Antonio, with no less than a trip to the NBA Finals at stake.
Verified and solidified
The Rockets had been a dynamic duo that always seemed to falter when the pressure got ratcheted up. And the Warriors were a scrappy bunch punching above their weight. But the Spurs … well, they were a ruthlessly efficient, postseason-hardened group chasing their fourth championship in nine seasons.
Yeah, this series would be something different. And it quickly showed.
In Game 1, Utah got blitzed 32-16 in the second quarter and fell 108-100. In Game 2, another second-period whitewashing (this time 32-17) paved the way for a 105-96 Spurs win.
“It seemed like every time we got back into the game, we’d shoot ourselves in the foot, kind of self-destruct,” Sloan would remark afterwards. “They just took advantage of our inability to see what’s going on.”
Game 3 in SLC would be Boozer’s and Williams’ first since being named to the Team USA roster. They quickly went out and justified the selections, with the point guard racking up 31 points and eight assists, and the power forward totaling 27 points and 12 rebounds. The Jazz not only sent the Spurs to their worst defeat of the season, 109-83, they gave themselves some hope that they could compete.
“There were no night-and-day differences in terms of game plan or strategies, but we were a more active team,” Fisher said afterward. “It just feels good to get a win. It verifies and solidifies the thoughts that our team has always carried — that we can beat this team.”
They just wouldn’t beat them again in that series.
Though Williams would overcome illness and a pair of IVs the morning of Game 4 en route to 27 points and 10 assists in 38 minutes, he didn’t get a ton of help. Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili’s flop-filled, ref-baiting performance helped the Spurs to 25 free throws — in the fourth quarter alone. Four of those came via technicals for Sloan and Fisher, who were both ejected late as San Antonio pulled away for a 91-79 win and a 3-1 series lead.
“We felt there were a couple of things that were questionable ... but they won the game,” Williams said. “They made plays. They kept their heads. We were the ones getting the techs, not them. And that’s why they prevailed.”
“I’m sure a lot of people are counting us out in the series,” Boozer added.
Apparently, some of them played for the Jazz.
With its season on the line in Game 5, Utah was nevertheless noncompetitive from the start. They trailed by 19 after the first quarter and by 27 after the third. Not even Fisher’s dramatic return from New York, where his young daughter was undergoing medical treatment for a rare eye condition, could spark the team. Their 109-84 loss would end both the series and their season.
“They came at us really hard,” Sloan said afterward. “They destroyed our will to want to play.”
Williams was even harsher in his assessment.
“There were some guys that were already on vacation,” he said. “Point-blank. On vacation. A long time ago.”
Fisher — a little while yet removed from becoming Public Enemy No. 1 among Jazz fans for citing his daughter’s condition in requesting his release, only to rejoin the hated Lakers — took a more nuanced view of his then-teammates.
“We got this close without really having a team that understands what it takes to get there,” Fisher said. “But it is very obvious we have some very good pieces and a team that can be good for a long time.”
The coach of the team that had just vanquished the young Jazz agreed — predicting Stockton-and-Malone 2.0 would be a force for years to come.
“We feel good about having beaten them now,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “It’s just going to get more difficult for everybody as they spend more time together.”
• 2017-18: From lottery-bound to a sparkling foundation