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Underdogs and all that Jazz Finals open tonight, with Utah confident it can run with Bulls


CHICAGO -- It was a teary-eyed Karl Malone who celebrated with so much joy when the Utah Jazz won the Western Conference title, earning a trip to its first NBA Finals. And there were many emotions on display when the Jazz landed in Salt Lake City at 3 a.m. the next day, emotions fueled by the 15,000 fans who cheered the team's return.

But if you think the Jazz players will be happy to just be on the same court as the defending champion Chicago Bulls when Game 1 of the best-of-seven series tips off tonight at the United Center, think again.

"On one side, it's an unbelievable honor to be here," Malone said last night, shortly after the Jazz arrived. "But on the flip side, that's not all I'm here for. I don't want to make a token appearance, and all of a sudden, 'see you later.' I'm here to win. And that's what our team is here for."

The fact that the Jazz, a team with no members who have played in an NBA Finals game, will not be in awe of the Bulls should help make for an intriguing series. The Bulls were the best team in the NBA in the regular season (69-13), and the Jazz was the second best (64-18). Malone, the league's MVP, and Michael Jordan were the top two players and top two scorers in the regular season. And both teams have two players who were named among the NBA's all-time best 50 players -- Jordan and forward Scottie Pippen of the Bulls and Malone and point guard John Stockton of the Jazz.

It appears that the Bulls will be at full strength tonight as Pippen was given medical clearance to play. Pippen injured his left foot in Wednesday's clincher over the Miami Heat, and was limited to seven minutes.

The Bulls will need Pippen at nearly 100 percent against a Utah team that might possess the right chemistry to deny Chicago back-to-back titles. Chicago is looking to do what only the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics and the George Mikan-led Minneapolis Lakers have accomplished: win five NBA titles in seven years.

With rumors that Phil Jackson will coach elsewhere next season, which could lead to Jordan's retirement and the trading of Pippen, this could be the last chance to witness what some have called the best team ever.

"We want to win the title, that's all we're thinking about," Jackson said. "We know we have to play better than we have played [so far in the playoffs]. We have to bring our level of play up on the offensive end of the court."

In addition to adding a ring, extra motivation for Jordan might stem from his wanting to show basketball fans just who was the real MVP in the league this season. Jordan, a four-time MVP, led the league in scoring but finished a close second to Malone in the MVP voting. Jordan won't come out and say that he felt slighted by losing out on the award, but anyone who knows his burning desire has to think it's eating at him.

"It's a challenge individually, but there's no animosity or jealousy toward Karl because he's very deserving," Jordan said. "But it will be a motivational factor for me from an MVP standpoint to lead my team to the championship before he leads his."

Expect this to be a physical series, and not only with the matchup between Malone and Dennis Rodman. Perhaps the most physical play to watch for will be in the backcourt, where Stockton and Jeff Hornacek have earned reputations for being dirty players, and have been criticized for alleged illegal screens and pushing off on drives to the basket.

Stockton had his way with the Bulls during Utah's 105-100 win in November that ended Chicago's 12-game, season-opening winning streak. In the rematch, won by the Bulls, Jordan, Ron Harper and Randy Brown played roughhouse with Stockton -- to the point where Stockton and Jordan exchanged harsh words.

"You can't go in there awe-struck," Malone said. "You have to go out, put a body on Michael. He's going to do it to you. You got to do the same thing to him. You can't go out there with your mouth wide-open. You have to be ready to play."

While saying that is easy, facing this challenge on this type of stage will be an entirely new situation for the Jazz. Malone and Stockton have twice represented the United States during the Olympics but, unlike those games against overmatched opponents, this series will be a challenge.

"The important thing is to believe we belong there," Malone said.

"Don't go up there thinking that we shouldn't be there. I think we worked our butts off to get there. We'll see what happens."

What many expect is a Bulls romp, despite the teams appearing to be evenly matched. Hornacek likes his team's underdog status.

"It's almost a good situation, knowing that if we don't win it was expected," Hornacek said. "Sometimes as a favorite team, it's more difficult because the pressure's on you."

Pub Date: 6/01/97

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