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Well Stocked With ageless guard John Stockton executing sagely on offense and pestering the Lakers to distraction on defense, the Jazz jumped to a 2-0 lead in the West finals

He has no look-at-me gyrations, no shimmy, no shake. He doesn't
drag his finger across his throat or push his hands toward the
rafters to play to the crowd and the cameras, and the only time
he talks trash is when he has to take it out at home. Maybe
that's why some people want to rush him off the stage--he seems
old-fashioned, out of place, an island of humility in a sea of

But Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton is in no hurry to leave.
In fact he's amused by all the talk of his age and supposed
infirmity. He's 36, and history shows that, even among the
league's greatest guards, few have reached his age without
suffering a severe decline. But when it's suggested that his
advancing years have robbed him of a step or two, or that he's
more susceptible to injury, Stockton smiles slyly, like a
magician who knows his audience is looking at the wrong hand. Go
ahead and check the calendar, Stockton seems to be saying, while
I beat you again.

Stockton didn't beat the Los Angeles Lakers by himself in Game 1
of the Western Conference finals last Saturday at the Delta
Center, but he had a hand in Utah's shockingly easy 112-77
win--both hands, actually. He dished out nine assists in just 22
minutes on the court and helped set the tone for the Jazz's
defense against Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal by swatting at
the ball whenever O'Neal was foolish enough to put it on the
floor. Two days later Stockton was even more masterly. Just when
his team was on the verge of being blown out, the Utah point
guard got hot, scoring 14 second-quarter points. He finished
with 22 and added six assists, directing the Jazz to a 99-95 win
and a 2-0 lead in the series, which will move to Los Angeles for
Game 3 on Friday.

Stockton's performances in the games at the Delta Center were
typical of most in his 14-year career, the kind he must maintain
if the Jazz are to keep the more athletic Lakers from flying
past them into the NBA Finals. Stockton quickly showed that he's
one of the keys to Utah's hopes of containing O'Neal better than
the Seattle SuperSonics did in the Western semifinals. Instead
of double-teaming O'Neal as soon as he got the ball, which was
the Sonics' tactic, the Jazz often used only one defender
against him until he made his move to the basket, at which point
one or more other defenders quickly collapsed around him. In a
sense Utah deceived Shaq into thinking he had an easy chance to
score, so O'Neal was eager to go to the basket. That kept him
from making the decisive passes he had made against Seattle and
bogged down the Los Angeles offense.

There's no one better at sagging inside to pester a big man than
Stockton, the all-time NBA steals leader. He was credited with
just one theft against O'Neal on Saturday, but he got his hand
on several more balls and helped harass Shaq into seven
turnovers. Meanwhile, Stockton committed only one turnover in 22
minutes, which was one of the reasons the vaunted L.A. fast
break was never a factor.

This is all Utah is asking Stockton to do in the series: run the
offense with his customary efficiency; take the punishment that
comes with setting picks on the Los Angeles big men; double-team
O'Neal near the basket on occasion; contain speedy Lakers point
guards Derek Fisher, 23, and Nick Van Exel, 26; and keep the
pace of the games slow enough to blunt the Lakers' break yet
fast enough for the Jazz to get some easy transition points.
"Hey, he was named one of the 50 greatest players of all time,
wasn't he?" said Utah forward Antoine Carr after Game 1. "He can
handle it."

How much Stockton can handle has been increasingly open to
question. He sat out the first 18 games of the regular season
after surgery on his left knee to repair cartilage damage, and
his statistics dropped from 14.4 points and 10.5 assists per
game in 1996-97 to 12.0 and 8.5, respectively, this season. But
opponents saw the greatest signs of slippage on defense, where
the whispers grew louder that Stockton was vulnerable to quick
point guards. Before Game 1 one Laker said his team's strategy
against Stockton was simple. "Attack him," he said. "He'll have
a hard time with Derek and Nick." In Game 1 Stockton survived
the attack: Fisher and Van Exel combined for nine points on 2 of
12 shooting, and five assists. In Game 2 the two Lakers,
throttled by Stockton and his backup, Howard Eisley, were only
sporadically effective, totaling 21 points and disappearing for
long stretches in the second half.

Before the series opener the Jazz almost welcomed the L.A.
tactic of targeting Stockton. "I've been here four years, and
every year I've heard that John is slowing down, and I keep
waiting to see the evidence," says Utah forward Adam Keefe.
"It's the annual question: Has Stockton lost a step?" Stockton
is so used to this line of inquiry that he has developed a
standard answer: "I don't think about my age, I just play. If
other people want to worry about whether I've lost a step,
that's up to them. I don't really listen to a lot of that
stuff." Stockton's opinion is matched by that of Jazz coach
Jerry Sloan. "He's not 19 anymore, but he still plays the game
with as much intelligence as any point guard who's ever played,"
says Sloan. "I'll take Stockton at 36 over a lot of point guards
in this league at 26."

Still, Sloan has gone to greater lengths to keep Stockton fresh
this season than he has in previous years. Stockton averaged
29.0 minutes per game in the regular season, the first time in
the last 11 years he has averaged less than 34.7. As Stockton's
playing time has declined, Eisley's minutes have increased to
the extent that the two now split time almost evenly. In Game 1
Eisley also played 22 minutes, contributing 14 points and nine
assists while not committing a turnover.

Eisley, 25, is in many ways the perfect understudy for Stockton.
He, too, plays a no-frills game, and off the court not only does
he have even less to say than Stockton but also the few words he
does utter are spoken barely above a whisper. Stockton and
Eisley are so reserved that you have to wonder what their
conversations are like. "Probably short and to the point," says
forward Karl Malone, who led the Jazz in Game 1 with 29 points
and in Game 2 with 33. When Eisley was struggling from the
field--he had made only 21 of his 69 shots (30.4%) in the
playoffs before hitting 6 of 8 in the opener against L.A.--he
received some typically concise encouragement from Stockton:
"Keep shooting."

Just as Stockton wastes no words, he wastes no motion. Or
emotion. Maybe that's the secret of his longevity; just think
how much energy he has saved by refusing to pat himself on the
back. In Game 1 he drove the baseline and scored on an acrobatic
reverse flip over 19-year-old Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. Most
other players would have made some self-congratulatory gesture
on their way back down the court, but Stockton did what he's
been doing for 14 years, the same thing he will no doubt be
doing for a few more. He just kept running.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SHAQDOWN Lured into going to the hoop, O'Neal was stung repeatedly in Game 1 by the gnatlike Stockton and other Jazz defenders. [Shaquille O'Neal and John Stockton reaching for basketball in game]