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Utah Jazz power forward Karl Malone, a self-described "Louisiana
country boy" and lover of all things rural, gives the distinct
impression that he would rather move into a Manhattan studio
apartment than analyze the duel of duos he and Jazz point guard
John Stockton are waging against their Seattle SuperSonics
counterparts and fellow All-Stars, power forward Shawn Kemp and
point guard Gary Payton, in the NBA Western Conference finals.
"We're playing five-on-five, not two-on-two on the playground,
so why talk about it that way?" Malone said last Saturday before
Game 1. "This isn't tennis. We're not playing doubles."

Certainly no one was confusing this matchup with Wimbledon. The
Jazz-Sonics confrontation was cast in terms more reminiscent of
a figure skating pairs competition, with the precisely
choreographed routines of Malone and Stockton, so beautiful in
their simplicity, matched against the higher-degree-of
-difficulty jumps and spins of the flamboyant Kemp and Payton.
When Kemp looked up at the scoreboard after dunking in Game 1,
it wasn't clear if he was checking the score or awaiting his
marks from a Russian judge. "I'd give both [duos] a lot of style
points," says Utah forward Bryon Russell, "but for a totally
different kind of style."

In the first two games of the best-of-seven series, played at
Seattle's Key Arena, the edge in both style and substance went
to Kemp and Payton. They propelled the Sonics to a 2-0 lead with
a 102-72 demolition of the Jazz in Game 1, followed by a 91-87
win on Monday night. Utah hoped to rebound in Games 3 and 4,
scheduled for Friday and Sunday in Salt Lake City's Delta
Center, where the Jazz was 34-7 during the regular season and
6-0 in the first two rounds of the postseason.

Despite Malone's protestations, it was impossible not to focus
on the fascinating four-man battle within the war, because the
Malone-Stockton and Kemp-Payton tandems define not only their
teams but also their generations. Stockton, 34, and Malone, 32,
represent the NBA Establishment, throwbacks to an earlier time,
right down to the old-fashioned, form-fitting shorts that
Stockton still favors instead of the bloomers currently in
style. Payton, 27, and Kemp, 26, are the Jazz pair's heirs
apparent, the 1990s version of the point guard-power forward
combination. If Stockton and Malone are the pick-and-roll and
the instructional film, Payton and Kemp are the alley-oop and
the highlight video. "Stockton and Malone set the standard for
how a point guard and power forward should play together, and
Gary and Shawn are what that combination has evolved into," says
Seattle forward-center Sam Perkins. "Stockton and Malone are
more conservative, and Gary and Shawn like to do their thing
with a little more flair, which is the way the NBA has gone
these days. You can't say one way is better than the other;
they're just different."

The NBA apparently has a preference. In an effort to put their
best foot forward at this summer's Olympics in Atlanta, league
officials, in conjunction with USA Basketball, chose Malone and
Stockton to make their second Olympic appearances rather than
offer spots to Kemp and Payton for the first time. The snubbing
of the Sonics was a clear indication that the league was wary of
the taunting behavior Kemp exhibited at the world championships
in 1994 and of Payton's trash-talking reputation. Kemp and
Payton brush aside all Olympic inquiries--"They made their
choice, and that's that," says Kemp. "I can live with it." But
their performance in these playoffs, particularly against Malone
and Stockton, will go a long way toward erasing, or solidifying,
their reputations as somewhat offensive characters.

Stockton and Malone, for their part, don't particularly care to
be anyone's measuring sticks. The affable Malone, a first-team
All-NBA selection for the last eight seasons, has a
self-deprecating manner that sometimes obscures how protective
he is of his status as the league's preeminent power forward.
But his relationship with Kemp, who has supplanted him as the
West's starting power forward in the All-Star Game the last
three years, is, if not warm, at least respectful. "He has
definitely turned into a great player," Malone says of Kemp. "If
he's not the best power forward, he's right up there." Reminded
that many still consider him the best power forward, Malone
smiled and said, "Yeah, but I'm old."

Kemp was certainly worthy of Malone's compliments in Game 1,
when he made all nine of his first-half shots, finishing with 21
points on 10-of-11 shooting and 11 rebounds. Kemp, who averaged
only 11.3 points on 37.5% shooting against Malone and the Jazz
in the regular season, made the small but critical adjustment of
holding the ball up high when he posted up, which kept Malone
from reaching in and stripping the ball, one of his favorite
defensive moves. "I thought Shawn played more of a technical
game than an athletic game," Seattle coach George Karl said
afterward. That represents a major step forward for Kemp, who is
proving that opponents can no longer count on him to lose his
composure. And in Game 2 Kemp played the final 10:44 with five
fouls but scored eight points and made the key steal. On defense
Kemp has an added advantage: While Malone has to expend a great
deal of energy defending against him, he does not have to guard
Malone. That task falls mostly to center Ervin Johnson or
Perkins, who held Malone to a quiet 21 points in Game 1.

At times it must have seemed to Stockton that all the swarming
Sonics were guarding him. "Before the game, in the films of
them, it looked as if they were playing six guys on defense,"
Utah coach Jerry Sloan said after Game 1. "Today it looked like
they had 10." In their semifinal sweep of the Houston Rockets,
the Sonics double-teamed Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon in the
low post, but against Utah they have selected Stockton as the
focal point of their defense. In both games, instead of doubling
Malone down low, they threw traps at Stockton on the perimeter
in an effort to make him give the ball to teammates and keep him
from running the lethal pick-and-roll. "In the Houston series we
were aggressive and disruptive," Karl said after Game 1. "This
series we're more into controlling. We want to limit Stockton by
forcing him to put the ball in the hands of other people."

Payton, of course, is central to that strategy, and he was up to
the task in Game 1, helping to limit Stockton to four points and
seven assists (more than seven and five, respectively, below his
averages in Utah's first two series) on 2-for-10 shooting.
Against most opponents Payton, who finished with 21 points,
seven assists and three steals, would have made sure to give his
success a sound track--a steady stream of trash talk--but when
he plays Stockton, the NBA leader in career steals and assists,
he bites his tongue out of respect. In fact, during Game 1, one
of the only times he spoke to Stockton, who has been playing
with a strained left hamstring, was to inquire about his health.
Early in the season Payton was talking about the various
weaknesses he tries to attack in opposing point guards, but when
Stockton's name came up, his tone became almost reverent. "He's
the best," Payton said then. "I'm still looking for a real
weakness in his game. If there's one guy I want to be like, it's

Not all the Sonics have been so complimentary. Earlier this
season guard Nate McMillan said, "Stockton comes across as a
person who plays the game hard and doesn't do any dirty work,
but he's probably the meanest, toughest guy on that team. When
he sets a pick on a big guy, he'll give him an elbow in the
ribs. He's been getting away with it for years." Although
McMillan backed off those comments at the start of the
series--"He's a smart, clever player who knows what he can and
can't do," he said--there was probably no need to, since nothing
seems to get a rise out of the laconic Stockton. "I don't care
what people say about me, and I don't care about individual
matchups," he said last Friday in what for him qualified as a
speech. "I just play."

All four of the series' central figures seemed to have adopted
that approach as the proceedings moved to Utah. "Talking won't
win this series," Payton says. "Both teams are just going to
come and lay their cards on the table." All that's definite is
that the winner will have to beat a pair of aces.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH In Game 1 Seattle stymied Stockton (center) on offense and defense, where he couldn't cut Payton (left) off at the pass. [Gary Payton, John Stockton and Frank Brickowski]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Johnson helped hold Malone to 21 points in Game 1, but Monday the Mailman delivered a game-high 32. [Karl Malone and Ervin Johnson]

COLOR PHOTO: NOREN TROTMAN/NBA PHOTOS Under unusual control, Kemp took command against Malone witha flawless first half in Game 1.[Karl Malone and Shawn Kemp]