This was not the work of a dirty player. John Stockton, his character having been called into question in these playoffs, did not trip the Chicago Bulls from behind Sunday night nor opt for any other cheap shot. He hit them square between the eyes.
Then in the gut.
Then in the heart.
Three plays in 98 seconds doomed the Bulls and turned the NBA finals again, all the way to back where they started, to a tied series. To a 2-2 series, to be exact, after the fourth-quarter brilliance of Stockton carried the Utah Jazz to a 78-73 victory before a frenzied 19,911 at the Delta Center, assuring that Wednesday night will not carry the possibility of elimination and that the series will go back to Chicago.
He finished with 17 points, 12 assists and four steals, going with 23 points and 10 rebounds from Karl Malone, but that does not begin to tell the story. In truth, it can only be told over time, after the best-of-seven series plays out and the true impact of his Bulls'-eye shot, of how he stole the ball out of thin Air, and of how he made history can be measured.
For the short term, though, start with phenomenal and work your way up from there.
Things were looking grim for the electric crowd and its beloved on the court before the Hall of Fame resume grew. The Jazz had gone 3:08 without a point and 5:47 without a basket. The Bulls had merely gone to Michael Jordan, riding one stretch that lasted most of the fourth quarter in which he scored 12 of their 14 points.
One of those, a charge down the lane for a dunk, was worth a 71-66 lead with 2:45 remaining. It was a margin that prompted concern, with that much time still to recover, only because Utah had gone dry just as Jordan was heating up after his five-of-15 start from the field.
His shot came first, a straightaway three-point basket with 2:23 left. The 25-footer cut the deficit to two, and did so much more.
“That got them back in the ballgame,” Bull Coach Phil Jackson said. “We had all the momentum at that point and, I don’t know, three minutes, two minutes and a half to go in the ballgame. And he came up with a rather large shot.”
“I think that was a huge basket that kept everyone’s hopes alive that we can win the game,” Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek said.
Jordan answered, slicing from left to right across the middle and then pulling up for a free-throw line jumper. The Bull lead was back to four, and about to grow after Hornacek missed. They went back to Jordan, near the line on the left side, defended in single coverage by Bryon Russell.
Jordan began his next assault. He spun toward the lane . . . where Stockton was playing him on the double team. The steal started a fastbreak that ended with Jordan fouling Stockton.
“Maybe speculation,” Stockton said. “I guess just trying to hustle and move around a little bit.”
The payoff this time was one free throw. That made it 73-70 with 1:31 remaining. The next possession, he was fouled again and hit both for a one-point game.
The Bulls went to Jordan again. He had made six of the previous 11 shots, but this jumper, under pressure from Russell and Malone, hit the front of the rim. Stockton got the rebound, took a couple dribbles and launched a right-handed baseball pass on the run, a heave that traveled from lane to lane.
Malone, beating the defense downcourt, was waiting. The throw was perfect, going past Toni Kukoc and just beyond--just barely beyond--the reach of Jordan. Malone made the catch, then the layup with 45 seconds left.
“To me,” Malone said, “that’s the pass that I’ll remember out of all the great ones he’s made. I’ll remember this one right here probably for the rest of my career, because it had to be the perfect pass.”
Try putting it in better context than that. For immediate purposes, though, it was an assist on the basket that put Utah ahead, 74-73.
It could have been very immediate--Steve Kerr missed a three-point shot. Antoine Carr tipped the rebound to Hornacek, who called timeout with 26 seconds left after quickly being cornered along the baseline by Scottie Pippen and Kerr.
The Jazz, in great position because it did not need to shoot until only two seconds remained, worked the clock down. With 18 seconds left, Malone was fouled.
The crowd rose to its feet, screaming “MVP! MVP!” as one. Memories fresh of how he missed two clutch free throws with 9.2 seconds left in Game 1, Malone stepped to the line.
The first one hit the front of the rim, the back of the rim, and dropped in. The second swished.
All that was left was to withstand Jordan, again. The Jazz, stubborn or crazy, offered single coverage again, just like when Jordan hit the two-pointer at the buzzer for the win in Game 1. This time, it was from behind the arc, with Russell trying not to be another ESPN moment.
The shot missed. Utah--the state, not the team--exhaled.
Russell’s dunk at the buzzer made for the 78-73 final. Stockton, though, he made it happen.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Utah vs. Chicago
Series tied, 2-2:
* Game 1: Chicago 84, Utah 82
* Game 2: Chicago 97, Utah 85
* Game 3: Utah 104, Chicago 93
* Game 4: Utah 78, Chicago 73
* Wednesday--at Utah 6 p.m.
* Friday--at Chicago 6 p.m.
* Sunday--at Chicago 4:30 p.m.-x
* MAKING AMENDS: One week after missing two costly free throws, Karl Malone makes the most of his chance at redemption. C11