Elusive crown: Moments that doomed ’90s Jazz in NBA title quest

Delfin Dioquino

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Elusive crown: Moments that doomed ’90s Jazz in NBA title quest


Led by Karl Malone and John Stockton, the Utah Jazz had their chances to win an NBA title, but they fell short every single time

MANILA, Philippines – Behind the one-two punch of Karl Malone and John Stockton, the Utah Jazz established themselves as an NBA powerhouse. 

In fact, in 18 seasons of Malone and Stockton driving opposing teams mad as they ran the pick and roll to perfection, the Jazz never missed the playoffs. 

But despite their success, the Jazz always fell short of the grand prize, famously losing to the Chicago Bulls in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals.

Here are the moments that doomed the Jazz in their title quest:

Mailman fails to deliver

The Jazz lost the 1997 NBA Finals to the Bulls, 2-4, but that series could have gone differently if not for botched free throws.

Case in point was Game 1 when Malone was sent to the stripe after a foul from Dennis Rodman with 10 seconds remaining and the match tied at 82. 

At that point, Malone was a reliable shooter at the line as he made 109 of his 142 foul shots (76.8%) in the earlier rounds of the playoffs that season and 3 of his 4 free throws earlier in Game 1.

But Malone, after a short exchange with Bulls forward Scottie Pippen, failed to rise to the occasion as he muffed both freebies, paving the way for Michael Jordan to hit the game-winning jumper at the buzzer. 

It was later revealed what Pippen said – a line that haunted Malone as he ended his NBA career without a title. 

“The mailman do not deliver on Sundays,” said Pippen, disclosing what he told Malone during that fateful encounter. 

Considering they clinched Games 3 and 4, the Jazz winning the finals opener on the road would have changed the complexion of the series and would have given them the mental edge over the Bulls. 

Massive meltdown

Even when the odds were in their favor, the Jazz still could not catch a break. 

With Jordan enduring flu-like symptoms in Game 5 after suffering from food poisoning, the Jazz had a prime chance to take a 3-2 series advantage in the 1997 NBA Finals. 

Instead, the Jazz squandered a lead as large as 16 points and allowed an ailing Jordan run roughshod over them in winning time. 

The Jazz still led by 8 points early in the last frame before Jordan took over, pouring in 15 of his 35 points in the period, including a triple with 25 ticks left that gave the Bulls an 88-85 lead en route to the 90-88 win. 

Jordan almost singlehandedly defeated the Jazz, who were limited to just 16 fourth-quarter points no thanks to their paltry shooting.

In the last frame, the Jazz made only 4 of their 17 field goals for a woeful 24% – a far cry from their 46% clip in the first 3 quarters. 

Unlikely hero

All eyes were on Jordan as the Bulls tried to close out the Jazz in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals, so he took advantage of the attention.

With the game tied at 86 in the final minute, Jordan attracted a double team from Bryon Russell and Stockton and passed the ball to Steve Kerr, who hit the go-ahead bucket just before the shot clock ran out.

It was a pick-your-poison situation for Stockton at the time – choosing whether to help on Jordan or stay with Kerr. 

Before making the biggest shot of his NBA career, Kerr was hardly a threat as he averaged just 3.4 points on a 33% clip in the first 5 finals games. 

Jordan, on the other hand, had sank a game-winner earlier in the series and already had 39 points in Game 6. 

Stockton learned the hard way it was the wrong choice as Kerr swished the jumper at the top of the key – nothing but net. 

The Jazz still had ample time to either force overtime or steal the win with 5 seconds left only to witness Pippen intercept an inbound pass from Russell and assist Toni Kukoc for the win-sealing dunk.

Denied again

Locking horns with the Bulls for the second straight season in the 1998 NBA Finals, the outcome was meant to be different for the Jazz.

The Jazz won both of their meetings against the Bulls in the regular season and nailed Game 1 of the finals in overtime. 

But the Bulls exacted revenge in consecutive fashion, stringing 3 straight victories to seize a commanding 3-1 lead and push the Jazz on the brink of another finals heartbreak. 

The Jazz, though, held on to a two-point win in Game 5 and looked set to drag the Bulls to a winner-take-all match as they gained an 86-83 lead off a Stockton three-pointer with 41 seconds left in Game 6. 

Jordan, however, had other plans. 

Immediately after a timeout, Jordan put the Bulls within a point off a layup, and 20 seconds later, stripped the ball from Malone – a steal that set up his title-clinching jumper over Russell now popularly known as “The Last Shot.” 

Just like the previous season, the Jazz had 5 seconds to stave off elimination, but Stockton missed the potential game-tying triple. 

If the Jazz managed to force a rubber match, history would have been on their side since Game 7 would be played at their home turf in Utah. 

Prior to that season, home teams were 12-3 all-time in Game 7 in the NBA Finals, with the 1978 Washington Bullets the last team to win a title on the road. 

The Jazz remained playoff contenders in the following seasons but never reached the finals again. – Rappler.com

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Delfin Dioquino

Delfin Dioquino dreamt of being a PBA player, but he did not have the skills to make it. So he pursued the next best thing to being an athlete – to write about them. He took up journalism at the University of Santo Tomas and joined Rappler as soon as he graduated in 2017.