INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The Utah Jazz spent the entire 1997-98 season as the best team in the Western Conference. Yesterday, they simply made it official.
Riding the shoulders of a 32-point, 14-rebound effort from All-Star forward Karl Malone and a bench that outplayed Los Angeles every minute, the Jazz earned their second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals with a 96-92 win over the Lakers for a four-game sweep in the Western Conference finals.
This was only the fifth playoff sweep of the Lakers.
"This is special, no doubt about it," a stoic Malone said afterward. "I'll admit it, it's nice to take the Lakers out in this fashion. But we didn't come here to win a conference finals. We came for the ring. There's still one round to go."
That probably explains why the Jazz got this far. Their goal never changed.
After losing to Chicago in last year's NBA Finals, Utah responded with a league-best 62-21 record this season, capturing home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. The combination of their physical play, which nearly pushed the Bulls to the brink last season, along with their rabid crowds, left enough basketball fans wondering if someone, indeed, could dethrone Michael Jordan and company.
The Lakers were standing in their way, however.
The team from L.A. that started the season with a franchise-best 11-0 start. The team that sent four players -- the largest one-team contingent in the past 15 years -- to the All-Star Game in February. The squad with star center Shaquille O'Neal and the heir apparent to Jordan in Kobe Bryant.
The team that followed a semifinals playoff loss to Utah last season by winning three of four against the Jazz this season, supposedly looking for vengeance.
"Don't even bring that up," said O'Neal, who scored 38 on 14-of-24 shooting yesterday. "That doesn't mean anything right now. I'm just frustrated.
"It just seemed to me like we were satisfied once we got by the Sonics. Everyone was saying we wouldn't beat them. So when we did, I think we thought that was enough."
In four games, the Lakers not only failed to win a game, but they also could barely buy a quarter. In 16 quarters, they lost 12, won two and tied for two. Yesterday, the Lakers were outscored in three quarters.
"The last thing we wanted to do was give them life," Jazz guard Bryon Russell said.
The Jazz held the Lakers to 31.8 percent (seven of 22) shooting in the first quarter, and 34.1 percent (14 of 41) by the half, when it led 47-38 in the midst of 16-for-31 (51.6 percent) team shooting and 18 points by Malone.
The third quarter showed Utah's dominance, as it prevented the Lakers from making any noise by using Malone's strength, Jeff Hornacek's shooting and dominant defense to stop the Lakers.
Once the fourth quarter arrived, matters just got worse.
"We kept fighting and fighting," said Lakers guard Nick Van Exel (11 points). "We just couldn't get over that hill."
O'Neal tried by himself, scoring 19 in the fourth quarter and eight of the Lakers' final 11 points, but matters became too much even for him.
At no time was it more noticeable in this series than with 26.3 seconds left in regulation. O'Neal, with the Lakers trailing 90-87, had the ball on the blocks and passed it out to a wide-open Rick Fox behind the three-point line.
Fox, looking petrified, elected to pass the ball back inside to O'Neal, who was fouled.
Shooting 25 of 51 on free throws in the series and known as one of the league's worst foul shooters, O'Neal stayed true to form, botching both.
"It's unimaginable to me how guys could pass up wide-open shots," Lakers general manager Jerry West said. "It's inexcusable. That's what they're there for."
Utah didn't have that problem. The Jazz shot 47.7 percent for the game and made 15 straight free throws down the stretch.
"That's why we're going to the Finals," center Greg Foster said.
It's why they are the best in the West. Again.
Pub Date: 5/25/98