The final speaker at the final press conference of the Western Conference finals was Los Angeles Lakers coach Del Harris. He was wearing a black double-breasted suit and a white shirt and a black tie, and he looked for all the world like a well-dressed funeral director who had arrived to console the bereaved. His words and disposition did nothing to change the image.
Late Sunday afternoon, no more than 20 minutes after the last Laker Girl had done her last cartwheel of the season, after the Great Western Forum crowd had groaned its last groan, after the Utah Jazz had swept--swept!--his team, Harris spoke in a gentle voice. He was philosophical. "There are some lessons you only can learn by failure," he said. "Your dad can tell you certain things, but until you have the experience yourself, you don't understand."
The suit, the tie, the words--it was as if Harris had prepared in advance for this final appraisal, which followed Utah's 96-92 series-clinching victory. Things had fallen apart that much. In nine days and four games, his high-flying Lakers had been exploited, exposed, dominated. That was the word: dominated. It had happened in front of his eyes. No warnings to his players had worked. No subtle changes in strategy. No fatherly advice. Nothing.
"We're all the same way," Harris continued in that same voice. “We have to experience for ourselves. There's not a single person here who didn't touch that stove at least once. We all touched it."
Touch the stove and what happens? Touch it four times and what happens? You go home with your Shaquille O'Neal and your Kobe Bryant and your Eddie Jones and your Nick Van Exel. You go home with your highest-scoring offense in the NBA, your high-wire act, your basketball team of the future.
"To be successful you have to go through disappointment," Harris went on. "Read all the great biographies. They tell about people who failed all the time, who got knocked down and got back up. No one has a free ride to success. Look at the Utah Jazz. Ten years ago, they were the ones who got flushed."
He looked at his audience—20 sportswriters spread across maybe 100 folding chairs because the rest of the media pack had moved along to talk to other heads. Was anybody listening? Harris looked tired. There was no doubt about who had gotten flushed here.
A sweep. Who had figured a sweep? It all had a certain logic now, the virtues of experience and ambition stacked against youth and not as much ambition, but wasn't it only two or three weeks ago that Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl called Shaq “the best player in the NBA right now"? Weren't the fuses being lit for that grand L.A.-Chicago Finals that was going to cut across the sky and all demographics, the show of shows?
A sweep? One of the five most stunning playoff routs ever)? "The only time I ever thought about a sweep, I thought about us sweeping them," Lakers reserve forward Corie Blount said, speaking for the statistical majority. "I thought about Chicago and a sweep, but I couldn't see the Bulls sweeping us, either. I couldn't see anybody sweeping this team."
This wasn't so much a sweep as a deconstruction of the wildly hyped Lakers, piece by gaudy piece. Substance 4, Style 0. From the first afternoon in Salt Lake City—when L.A. was still caught up in the buzz of its five-game semifinals win over the Sonics and was routed by Utah 112-77—this was one of those old-time basketball morality plays. High school coaches will be blabbing about this series for the next decade.
The Jazz players were the worker ants, the eager students, finishing off every cut, diving for every loose ball, all that good stuff, running that pick-and-roll as if they were giving a summer clinic for fat rich kids. The Utah offense started with that basic move, spelled out first in hieroglyphics on the wall of an Egyptian tomb: 36-year-old John Stockton passing the ball to 34-year-old Karl Malone and Malone passing back and rolling to the basket. Everyone else was available to help. Everyone did help, roles defined, shooters shooting, rebounders rebounding, nobody deviating in times of stress. The bench seemed to run forever.
"The way it's been in the past, teams would go out there to stop Karl and John and figure they would stop the Jazz," Malone said during the series. "Well, that's not the case now. We've got some other guys who can put a hurt on you."
One minute Bryon Russell would be hitting a three-pointer—“I've always said a guy could make a nice career for himself playing that number 3 spot with me and John," Malone said—and the next minute Chris Morris would be hitting that shot, or Shandon Anderson would. Or Howard Eisley would be taking Stockton's place at point guard with the same deadpan expression, the same textbook offense. Or Greg Ostertag would be battling Shaq for a rebound. Or Greg Foster would. Or Antoine Carr. The old system worked as well as it ever has.
"What's the best thing about this team?" Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was asked.
"We've all been together for a long time," he said. "There's no volatility here. Nothing's changed. I've been here. The players have been here."
The Jazz, not the Lakers, knew how to win games at the end. ("You learn that over the years," Malone said. "You get the ball into the hands of the people who can shoot the fouls, who know what to do. If you don't do that, guys sometimes do strange things.") The Jazz knew how to draw the foul, make the free throw, use the erratic playoff refereeing to their advantage. ("I've never taken an acting class in my life," Blount said, “but after seeing this, I'm signing up this summer.") The Jazz simply knew.
"Because of the way they play, it's like the project guys going to play against a bunch of guys who set pick-and-rolls, who do the little things, while the project guys always want to do the fancy behind-the-back dribbles and do the spectacular plays," Van Exel said between Game 3 and Game 4, explaining the situation as well as anyone. “Maybe it's the age. We feel that if we go out there and just lace up the shoes and run around and do the dunks, we can win. But it's not like that."
The most important game was Game 3, last Friday night. That's when the series arrived at the Forum, the Lakers still believing that the momentum would change because they would play at home, win two and go on from there. They never had a chance.
Malone had preached the virtues of winning the third game because, he said, "we always have trouble with that game. We have to do what Chicago always does, take care of business as fast as we can." So the Jazz played its best game. It shot 52% from the floor, made 7 of 11 three-pointers, hit 24 of 29 from the free throw line. Ten guys contributed to Utah's 109-98 win. Russell had 17 points. Anderson had 13. Morris, coming off the bench and firing, had 15 points and seven rebounds.
Los Angeles, tighter and tighter, was reduced to an offense of Shaq and more Shaq. He scored 39 points, but take away his 17-for-30 shooting and the Lakers were 18 for 55. The Forum was half empty by the time the game ended.
"There aren't any secrets to what we do," Utah guard Jeff Hornacek said. "We do the same things against everybody. We play the Lakers, we all guard down against Shaq, and then we run out at the three-point shooters. Maybe, because it's the playoffs, we run out a little faster, but that didn't matter. They were missing those shots. That was the big thing."
L.A.'s grim situation was covered in a letter written by point guard Derek Fisher to his teammates on the night before Game 4. What had gone wrong? Everything. Fisher had things he wanted to say, frustrations he felt but hadn't known how to get them across. After a talk with Shaq, he wrote his letter by hand, ran it through a copying machine more than 20 times and handed it out to his coaches and teammates in the locker room on Sunday morning.
"Since the conference finals started WE have played inconsistent," he wrote in part. “WE have allowed OUR opponent to play harder than US. We have allowed OUR opponent come into OUR home and beat US. At times, WE just haven't come to play!
"NOW is the time for US to do what WE have done before. WE must not give in. WE must not allow the peripheral opponent to divide US. WE must stick together and believe in one another. WE must persevere and play OUR best basketball...."
The letter didn't help enough. The Lakers' effort was better in Game 4, especially in the second half, but the plot lines already were drawn. Again, Shaq was left to handle most of the offense, and he scored 38 points. Again the Jazz got help from different places. Hornacek, previously quiet, had 15 points. Ostertag had 11. Malone had a workmanlike 32. Each team shot 33 free throws. Utah hit 30. L.A. hit 22. That was the game right there.
"It got so you'd think about anything," Van Exel said at the end. "You know what I noticed? We'd always come out early after a timeout. Every time. We'd be standing around, waiting. They'd all still be in the huddle. What were they doing? What was that all about? What were they saying?"
"We were resting," Sloan said. "That's all. I don't say much in the huddle. We just stay there to get more rest. We have some old guys."
The old guys were the answer. The old guys, the experience. Old Guys 4, Young Guys 0. Now Malone and Stockton would be off for at least one more week of rest before returning to a Finals that for once in recent years might be competitive. The Lakers were left to consider their lessons. Shaq said, "Guys have to step up. If they don't want to play, then they need to ask for a trade. If they don't want to play, then get off my team." Forward Robert Horry was admiring "the unity" Utah has. Blount was considering those acting lessons.
The important questions for Los Angeles will be addressed in the upcoming weeks or months. Will there be big changes? Will executive vice president Jerry West leave, and will his replacement look for a new direction? Will Harris survive a surprise playoff exit like this? Will deals be made, free agents signed? Will these Lakers have a chance to grow? Or will there be a rush for a different fertilizer?
Harris hopes the situation stays the same. He pointed no farther than the visiting locker room to find support for his case. "How long did it take their guys to get where they are?" he asked. “How many of these situations did they go through? They're 35 and 36, and they've made it. We're 25 and 26, and we're right next to them now. We're going to be there a lot sooner than they were."
He sounded hopeful. He sounded tired. He still looked like a mortician.