No. 1 Utah (62-20) vs. No. 2 Chicago (62-20)
Season series: Utah, 2-0 (101-94, at Chicago, Jan. 25; 101-93, at Utah, Feb. 4).
Key players: Utah: Karl Malone (26.9 ppg, 11.0 rpg), John Stockton (11.7 ppg, 7.4 apg), Bryon Russell (11.9 ppg), Jeff Hornacek (10.9 ppg). Chicago: Michael Jordan (31.9 ppg), Scottie Pippen (17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 5.4 apg), Toni Kukoc (12.3 ppg), Dennis Rodman (13.2 rpg).
Point guard: John Stockton vs. Ron Harper.
For the second straight series the Bulls face one of the premier veteran point guards in the league, although Stockton presents more of a problem than Indiana's Mark Jackson. Stockton, the NBA's all-time assists leader, is quicker than his Indiana counterpart and is the trigger man of the best pick-and-roll combination in the league. While Harper normally gets the assignment of opposing point guards, he spent most of last series chasing shooting guard Reggie Miller while Scottie Pippen defended the point guard. And while Pippen might get the occasional assignment on Stockton, it will be mostly up to Harper to attempt to slow the Utah offense. Limiting the Jazz fast break is key.
Shooting guard: Jeff Hornacek vs. Michael Jordan.
A quick glance at the 6-foot-4 Hornacek, and you expect opposing shooting guards to post him up at will. But Hornacek has more than held his own during the playoffs, although his 9.0 points against the Lakers and All-Star guard Eddie Jones was nearly five points below his regular-season scoring average (14.2). Hornacek will be overmatched against Jordan, the all-time playoff scoring leader who is averaging 31.9 points in this year's playoffs. Jordan has been off the mark with his shot at times, but then he dominates games with his passing and defense. Hornacek must be aggressive offensively and make Jordan work on defense. Defensively, Hornacek might spend a lot of his time defending Pippen, as he did during last year's Finals.
Center: Greg Foster vs. Luc Longley.
This is really a matchup between Longley and Utah's two-headed center combination -- Foster and Greg Ostertag. Foster starts the game and is mainly a perimeter player on offense. Swift for a center, he fills the lane on the break as well as any center in the league and is often rewarded for his hustle by Stockton. The key for Longley will be to avoid foul trouble, which may not be a problem at the start of games since Foster's not much of an inside threat. But because of Utah's depth at center, Longley has to be careful to avoid fouls since the Bulls are limited at this position.
Power forward: Karl Malone vs. Dennis Rodman.
Malone is on a mission, playing perhaps the best basketball of his career. A dominant player with his strength, Malone has perfected a jump shot extending out to 18 feet from the basket, making him nearly impossible to stop. Rodman has been ineffective during the playoffs, as officials have become less tolerant of his antics. A key to Rodman's game is to get under the skin of his opponent, but Malone is the one player in the league he appears to be intimidated by.
Small forward: Bryon Russell vs. Scottie Pippen.
Pippen's offense suffered during the Indiana series, having expended so much energy defending Mark Jackson. Pippen's assignment in this series should primarily be on Russell, and he will need to step up his offensive play (41.7 percent shooting in the playoffs) for the Bulls to have a chance. Russell is quietly averaging 11.9 points on 49.5 percent shooting in the postseason. With so much attention on Stockton and Malone, Russell should wind up with some easy scoring opportunities.
Coaching: Phil Jackson vs. Jerry Sloan.
Is Jackson a great coach, or just lucky to have had the luxury of having the game's greatest player? You can't argue with five championships, and Jackson's even temperament is perfect for this team. Sloan is a fiery, no-nonsense type of coach -- the same style he carried as a player. Under Sloan's guidance, Utah has developed one of the best benches in the league.
Intangibles: Two are important, the first being the Utah bench. If Sloan gets the production he has received throughout the playoffs from his second unit, that will be enough to wear the Bulls down. The biggest key is the home-court advantage. By sweeping Chicago in the regular season, the Jazz earned that home-court edge. Chicago dropped all three games on the road in the conference finals against Indiana. The Bulls will attempt to end that string in a building, the Delta Center, that is one of the loudest in the league.
Prediction: No wavering from the prediction made here before the start of the playoffs -- Utah over Chicago in six games.
Pub Date: 6/03/98