CHICAGO -- What happened to Karl Malone in the first two games of the NBA Finals was surprising. What happened to Malone and his Utah Jazz teammates in Game 3 last night, at the hands of the Chicago Bulls' suffocating defense, was downright shocking.
Looking to bounce back from a loss that cost the team home-court advantage, the Jazz responded with the lowest-scoring game in the history of the NBA's post-shot clock era.
Yes, it turned out to be a record-breaking night for the Jazz in a 96-54 loss that gave the Bulls a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
In defeat, the Jazz found itself associated with quite a few records of futility, including:
Fewest points in a game since the introduction of the shot clock (the previous was 55, established this season by Indiana).
Fewest points in an NBA Finals game (previous was 71 by Syracuse against Fort Wayne in 1955; and Houston against Boston in 1981).
Fewest field goals in a game (21).
Fewest points in a half (23, second half).
It all added up to a 42-point Chicago win, the largest margin of victory in an NBA Finals game (the previous record was 35 points).
"I don't know if I've ever seen a team play any better defensively since I've been in the business," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "And they ate us alive. We couldn't get into our offense, couldn't get up the floor. They came out and got after us. I don't know if I've ever seen a team that quick defensively."
That defense forced Malone into seven turnovers, including one out of frustration in the third quarter when he nailed Dennis Rodman in the face with an elbow. The usually sure-handed John Stockton had five turnovers, several times throwing the ball away after uncharacteristically getting caught in the air.
"They had a hell of a defense and we didn't respond," Malone said. "We got our butts kicked. We don't have any excuses."
And to think, the Jazz's biggest concern going into the game was whether Malone would show up, after the NBA's Most Valuable Player runner-up had hit just 14 of 41 shots in the first two games of the series.
With 22 points, Malone was the only Utah player to score in double figures. And on the surface, his 8-for-11 shooting from the field was impressive, but what was unimpressive was that the so-called second-best player in the league attempted just five shots over the final three quarters, making two.
At least Malone showed up -- briefly. That's more than could be said for Bryon Russell (1-for-7 from the field, four turnovers), Greg Ostertag (0-for-7 in making his first start of the Finals), and Howard Eisley (0-for-6).
In fact, while Malone was hitting all six of his shots in the first quarter, Russell, Ostertag and Hornacek shot a combined 0-for-16 from the field.
The biggest key to the game was the Chicago defenders cutting off the Jazz at the head -- or, in this case, at the point. In the second quarter, the Bulls started sending a second defender at Stockton or Eisley as soon as he crossed half court. That forced the point guards to pick up their dribble, thus slowing Utah's attack.
"We thought we could hold them up a bit, so they didn't have the fluidity," Chicago coach Phil Jackson said. "And Scottie [Pippen] is able to make Stockton slow down, stop at half court, and we can get our defense set up to prevent a little bit."
A little bit? The Jazz was so ineffective that its players spent much of the game looking like deer caught in the headlights of a tractor trailer.
"I give credit where credit is due," Utah center Greg Foster said. "We played scared, from one through 12."
And that's what perplexed Sloan, the fact that the best team in the league during the regular season could be scared in the Finals.
"I'm always surprised when we don't come and play hard," said Sloan, reiterating his words from after Utah's Game 2 loss. "I can accept losing, but it's always a disappointment at not playing hard. I think it's really critical."
As for the Bulls, even with the big win, they realize the series is far from over.
"We've very happy, but we don't feel by any means that we're in control of this series," said Pippen, who with 10 points joined Michael Jordan (24) and Toni Kukoc (16) in double figures. "We're up 2-1, but still we have to come out and do this again Wednesday. No matter how you look at the outcome of this game, it's still just one game."
The Utah Jazz's 54 points last night were the fewest in an NBA
game since the 24-second shot clock was introduced for the 1954-55 season. Records for fewest points before last night:
NBA game: 55 -- Indiana vs. San Antonio (74), March 29, 1998.
Playoff game: 64 -- Portland at Utah (102), May 5, 1996.
Finals game: 71 -- Syracuse at Fort Wayne (74), April 7, 1955; Houston vs. Boston (94), May 9, 1981.
Chicago vs. Utah
(Chicago leads 2-1)
Game 1 Utah, 88-85, OT
Game 2 Chicago, 93-88
Yes'day Chicago, 96-54
Wed'day at Chicago 9 p.m.
Friday at Chicago 9 p.m.
June 14 at Utah 7: 30 p.m.*
June 17 at Utah 9 p.m.*
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Pub Date: 6/08/98