CHICAGO -- He stepped to the podium clad in a snug T-shirt that accentuated his well-chiseled body. Indeed, to see Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone up close, you're even more impressed by how massive the man is.
He was the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 1997 and runner-up this season. During this year's playoffs, he has run over and through the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal.
So why, two games into the NBA Finals, is the biggest question: "Where in the world is Karl Malone?" And why is the 6-foot-9, 256-pound Malone shooting jumpers, instead of bullying Luc Longley?
Malone has been an NBA Finals no-show. With a subpar 16-point effort in Friday's 93-88 loss, he is shooting 34.1 percent (14 of 41 from the field) through two games. And with the mounting criticism of him, one has to wonder at what point does his problem become mental.
"Yes, but -- yes, I would, you know, and like I say, all year I make those shots," said Malone, stammering on the podium at the Delta Center during a post-game interrogation after Friday's loss. "It just comes at a bad time not to make them. You know, guys, I wish I could make a lot of excuses, but I don't have any."
How's this for a suggestion: Perhaps Malone is incapable of rising to the occasion in big games. On Friday, he didn't make a shot in the second half and missed his only two fourth-quarter attempts. That followed a poor Game 1 in which Malone shot just 9-for-25.
And even during last year's finals, Malone failed in the clutch. He missed two free throws in the final seconds of Game 1 that,
instead of giving the Jazz a two-point lead, instead set up Michael Jordan's game-winning shot. In Game 2, Malone shot 6-for-20 from the field. And facing elimination in Game 6, Malone missed seven of 11 free-throw attempts in the season-ending four-point loss.
Asked why Malone didn't get more shots in the second half of Friday's loss, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan seemed to place some of the blame on his All-Star forward.
"I never said I didn't want Karl Malone to take shots," Sloan said. "But the important thing is how hard do you work to get open to get shots. They were doing a great job, they stood us up and took us out of some of the things we wanted to do. That's when you have to be tough mentally and stay with it."
If Malone doesn't somehow find that mental toughness over the rest of the series -- and if Utah doesn't win the title many predicted -- he will be haunted the rest of his career for his failure in big-game situations. His struggles are a complete surprise, especially after he dominated the postseason up until this series Malone averaged 26.5 points on 45.8 percent shooting entering the finals).
Despite his size, Malone's major shortcoming is that he has never really developed adequate post moves. Malone is best at steamrollering a defender, scoring off the fast break or running pick-and-roll plays with John Stockton. Chicago took away many of those options Friday.
"I thought our team focused very well on what we were trying to do, and that was to take them out of the screen roll, which gave Karl more easy looks," said Chicago coach Phil Jackson. "Also, I thought Dennis did a good job on him as far as bodying him off."
Another option for Malone has been his jumper, which was accurate in the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Malone is getting good looks on his jumper against the Bulls, but the shots are simply not falling.
"Those shots, I've made all year," Malone said. "It's just coming at an unfortunate time I'm not playing well right now."
Had Malone had a halfway decent game on Friday, when the Jazz scored just 15 fourth-quarter points, maybe Utah would be leading the series 2-0.
"We have other guys that step up, but if I don't play well, we don't win this series," Malone said. "But I think the worst thing in the world for me to do now is try to put the whole weight of the team on my shoulders. It's just the second game. And I'm not going to come out here and try to do anything weird or crazy."
NOTES: With his 37-point effort on Friday, Michael Jordan has scored 20 or more in 31 consecutive finals games. The streak began on June 2, 1991. Chicago grabbed 18 offensive rebounds for 19 second-chance points. The normally sure-handed Jazz committed seven of its 19 turnovers in the fourth quarter, leading to 10 Chicago points. After leading the league with 24.9 free throws made per game in the regular season, the Jazz has averaged only 13.5 made during the finals. Chicago forward Dennis Rodman made his only shot in Game 2, a foul-line jumper early in the fourth quarter that tied the game. "Dennis, he has to be offensive-minded," Jordan said. "Sure, he took everybody by surprise when he took the shot. But he made it. It was kind of shocking."
Pub Date: 6/07/98