In their 11 years together with the Utah Jazz, Karl Malone and John Stockton have been teammates on the original Dream Team, played side by side in eight All-Star Games and have led their team to the playoffs each year.
Yet, for all the success of the top power forward/point guard duo in the league, Malone and Stockton have never reached the pinnacle -- playing in the NBA Finals.
"Just maybe," Malone said, "this could be our year."
Maybe. But to get to the Finals, the two will have to out-duel the power forward/point guard combination of Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton starting today when the Western Conference finals between the Jazz and the SuperSonics begin at Key Arena in Seattle.
This is a series that features a contrast in styles. In Malone and Stockton, the Jazz is able to beat you with basic basketball -- using the pick-and-roll that opponents know is coming but usually can't stop.
The Sonics, surprisingly, also are a team that has gained success with fundamental basketball. Yet, from Kemp's thunderous dunks to Payton's macho posturing, Seattle tends to pull it off with an artistic, new-school flair.
"Malone and Stockton are a conservative version of Shawn and Gary," said Seattle forward/center Sam Perkins. "Stockton likes to make the good pass, and Malone the good, simple move.
"But while they are making the play, Shawn and Gary definitely need some showtime with it," Perkins added. "That's the '90s, I guess. In the past, players would try to make [fancy] plays . . . and coaches would cringe. Now, it's just part of the game."
Talk all you want about the offense of the two teams, but neither would have reached the conference finals without the success of its defense.
In winning the conference semifinal series in six games over the San Antonio Spurs, Utah was able to shut down David Robinson while winning its games by an average of 23 points.
In Seattle's four-game sweep of the two-time defending champion Houston Rockets, the Sonics -- led by Payton, the league's Defensive Player of the Year -- unleashed a swarming defense that confused Dream Team center Hakeem Olajuwon.
"Seattle took away our strengths better than any team in the league," Houston guard Clyde Drexler said.
For Seattle, the success comes after a regular season in which the team's 64-18 record was second only to the Chicago Bulls. The Sonics won three of four games against Utah this season, but two of the wins came by a combined three points.
What the Sonics are attempting to do is shake their image of underachievers, a label earned after consecutive seasons of 63 and 57 wins ended with first-round playoff eliminations. Those disappointments are probably why the team guaranteed coach George Karl's contract for next season but did not grant the winningest coach in franchise history an extension.
"I'm definitely into commitment," Karl said. "I don't want another compromise. I don't want another year of what's going to happen to George Karl, and where is he going to be? I think it's time to re-commit, or get out."
A trip to the NBA Finals might grant Karl the job security he is seeking. To do so, the Sonics will have to get past a Utah team that, in its third trip to the Western Conference finals, will attempt to reach the NBA Finals for the first time. The Sonics know that beating a team led by Stockton and Malone won't be an easy task.
"They execute so well and run their options so well, you can't fall asleep on them," Perkins said. "We haven't beaten them 13 times in a row [like Houston]. That right there tells you they're a difficult team to play."
Pub Date: 5/18/96