What hopes do all 16 teams have of hopping in the postseason driver's seat? Take a ride with NBA.com as we outline each team's Keys to Success.
MASTER KEY: Karl Malone
and John Stockton
almost rank with Fred and Ginger, Laurel and Hardy and even Batman and Robin as the most famous dynamic duos in entertainment history, but the fact remains that as Karl Malone goes, so go the Utah Jazz. Utah posted a 43-13 record this season when "The Mailman" scored 20 or more points and were 10-16 when he scored under 20 points (Malone missed one game due to suspension: a Jazz win vs. Denver on Nov. 22). The 13-time All-Star, who passed Wilt Chamberlain (31,419) this season for second place all-time in points, scored the fewest points per game (23.2) since his second season (21.7) in 1985-86, but still delivers every night like few players in the league.
There aren't enough superlatives in the dictionary to properly describe John Stockton's play at his advanced age, let alone for his career. Despite turning 39 years old, an age when most point guards have been in retirement for several years, the diminutive Stockton guided Utah's offense this season with exceptional skill. The NBA's all-time assists leader ranked second in the NBA with 8.7 apg, led the Jazz in assists 67 times, and tallied 10 or more assists 27 times. It's not a coincidence that Utah led the league in assists per game at 25.7.
After six largely disappointing seasons with Minnesota and Golden State, Donyell Marshall
, the fourth overall selection in the 1994 NBA Draft, found new life at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains this season. The 6-7 forward delighted in playing on a winning team and responded by getting in the best shape of his career and posting 13.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 1.05 spg and ranking eighth in the NBA in field-goal percentage at .503. After averaging 9.4 ppg and 5.2 rpg on .470 field-goal shooting as a reserve in the first 32 games of the season, Marshall improved dramatically with 16.4 ppg and 8.3 rpg on .514 shooting in 49 games as a starter.
KEY STOPPER: Bryon Russell
KEY WIN, KEY VID: Utah limped into Dallas' Reunion Arena on April 7, losers of eight of its last 14 contests and tied with the Mavericks at 49-26 in a tight battle for the fourth seed and homecourt advantage in the Western Conference playoffs. Thanks to 31 points and 11 rebounds from Malone and 15 points and 13 assists from Stockton, Utah escaped with a huge 116-103 win and a rejuvenated sense of purpose about its season.
28.8+ | ISDN+
is Utah's top one-on-one defender, except when Michael Jordan gets to freely push him out of a play (see Finals, NBA, 1998, Game #6), but the Jazz play defense best like they play basketball: as a team. Utah held opponents to a meager .439 field-goal shooting percentage, and went 46-16 this season when it held opponents under 100 points and 7-13 when it didn't.
Skeptics said his knee wouldn't last, but Danny Manning
proved the doubters wrong and joined John Stockton and Jacque Vaughn
as the only Jazz players to play in every game this season. Manning, the first selection of the 1988 NBA Draft who has blown out his anterior cruciate ligaments three times in his career, played in every game for the first time since 1991-92 with the L.A. Clippers. More importantly, he learned the Jazz offense quickly enough to make significant contributions all season long, averaging 7.4 ppg and 2.6 rpg in 15.9 mpg.
KEY LONG-RANGE GUNNERS:
John Stockton and Bryon Russell ranked second (.462) and 13th (.413), respectively, in the NBA this season in three-point field goal shooting percentage. The team shot .381 from long-range. Who don't the Jazz want shooting a three-pointer with the game hanging in the balance? Center Olden Polynice
was the only Jazz player who failed to make a trey this season; Greg Ostertag
made one of his two attempts.
KEY INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE:
The Marshall Plan? Donyell Marshall will make his NBA playoffs debut after six losing seasons in Minnesota and Golden State. Will his game continue to rise during the postseason? Utah certainly hopes so as it makes a bid for its third NBA Finals appearance.
He had already scored 40 or more points 42 times in his career, but not this season and not at age 37. Casting aside any doubts that "The Mailman" was old and had lost his scoring touch, Malone dropped a season-high 41 points on the NBA-best Sixers to propel Utah to a 91-89 win at Philadelphia on Dec. 20
KEYS IN THE KEY:
Jazz fans may cringe, but 7-2 center Greg Ostertag, who averaged 4.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, and 1.75 bpg in 18.4 mpg this season, ultimately could be the difference between a successful Jazz run and an early exit in the playoffs. Doubt it? Remember how the mystery wrapped in an enigma helped the Jazz dispatch of Houston in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals. On that historic night, Ostertag played probably the best game of his career with 16 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots, made every shot he took (6-6 FG, 4-4 FT), and kept Hakeem Olajuwon in check.
The coach with the longest active tenure in the NBA, Jerry Sloan
remains the NBA's Rock of Gibraltar. Sloan assumed the head coaching duties for Utah on December 9, 1988 and has been at the helm for 1,017 games, compiling a 690-327 (.678) record in 13 seasons. Only Red Auerbach (Boston-1,192), John MacLeod (Phoenix-1,122), Red Holzman (New York-1,097) and Al Attles (Golden State-1,075) have coached more games with one franchise than Utah's legend.
Six degrees of separation? Try three or even two. Danny Manning's father Ed played nine years in the NBA and ABA, including a few games against Jerry Sloan. Manning spent his collegiate days at Kansas playing for current Philadelphia 76ers head coach Larry Brown, who was assisted by Ed. Jazz VP, Basketball Operations, Kevin O'Connor spent two seasons with the 76ers as director of player personnel, assisting Brown. Confused yet? Manning, O'Connor and Brown simply hope that they can all have a reunion playing each other in the NBA Finals this June.