May. 16, 1998
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ The Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers are on familiar historical turf in the Western Conference finals.
One decade after the up-and-coming Jazz lost a thrilling seven-game playoff series to the established champion Lakers, the two teams are meeting again in a pivotal playoff series. This time, however, the roles are reversed.
The series starts Saturday at the Delta Center. The veteran Jazz will be trying to hold back the progress of one of the league's best young teams for one more season _ just like the veteran Lakers did to young, hungry Utah in 1988.
``We're not ready to go anywhere yet,'' said Utah coach Jerry Sloan, who was an assistant to Frank Layden at the time before taking over the team early the next season. ``We still have things we want to do as a team.''
For the Lakers, the series was the first of three consecutive seven-game heart-stoppers on their way to a second straight NBA championship. The title was the last the franchise has earned to date, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired after the 1988-89 season.
It was also during the 1988 series that Karl Malone emerged as a genuine NBA star. The Mailman made the cover of Sports Illustrated and increased Utah's national profile.
``That was a long time ago,'' Malone said when asked about his memories of the series. ``That team was young and really wanted to win, but I think we want to win more now.''
KOBE'S MOTIVATION: Kobe Bryant is finally healthy and a year wiser, and the 19-year-old All-Star could be headed for a breakthrough series against the Jazz.
``He's highly motivated now. Then again, it's not difficult to get him motivated,'' coach Del Harris said. ``He hasn't been able to participate the way he's wanted to. He's very excited about the prospects.''
Bryant missed two games against the Sonics with the flu and played just 10 minutes per game in the other three Seattle games. He is averaging just eight points a game during the playoffs.
``I'm fine, my wind's good,'' Bryant said. ``When I went down, the guys really stepped up. We have a lot of confidence right now from playing the last couple of games the way we have defensively. Our confidence has just soared.''
RUSSELL REDUX: Utah coach Jerry Sloan said forward Bryon Russell will remain in the starting lineup for Saturday's Game 1.
Russell provided a spark off the bench for the Jazz during their first-round win over the Houston Rockets. He was Utah's second-leading scorer in the five-game series with 12.6 points per game.
``Bryon upped his game a little bit during the last part of the season, and that mostly carried over to the playoffs,'' Sloan said. ``He gives us more options when he's effective in the starting lineup.''
Russell's improved play during Utah's run to the Western Conference championship last season was widely credited as one of the determining factors in Utah's success. During the regular season, however, Russell played inconsistently and lost his starting spot to Adam Keefe.
Russell started the series-clinching Game 5 against Houston, and Sloan inserted him into the lineup for Games 4 and 5 against the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals, both of which the Jazz won.
``(Russell) is a really good role player because you've got to be able to contain the big three (Malone, John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek),'' Lakers coach Del Harris said. ``He's a lot like Hersey Hawkins in that respect. ... It's players like that that help make championship teams.''
``I'm just trying to do the same job I did last season, which is knock down the outside shot and help us win,'' Russell said. He was 3-for-4 on 3-pointers during Utah's 87-77 win over the Spurs in Game 5. ``Whether I do that in the starting lineup or off the bench doesn't matter.''
While Russell's role has grown, Keefe's has shrunk. Sloan kept Keefe on the bench for Utah's last two wins over San Antonio, and he is averaging just over 10 minutes a game for the playoffs. Any hard feelings?
``That's not even a consideration,'' Keefe said. ``We're trying to win games, and Bryon is a big part of our offense when he's playing well. ... We all have roles to play.''
SHAQ ATTAQ: O'Neal isn't opposed to a rumble, if that's what an expectedly physical series against the Jazz turns into.
``If they want to do it Jerry Springer-style, that's fine,'' O'Neal said. ``If you want to kick me, that's fine. When I kick you back, don't go crying to David Stern. If you're going to fine me, fine me double. I'm in a good mood.''