15 years ago today, the Utah Jazz defeated the L.A. Lakers 112-77 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
The Lakers came into the series with all the hype and momentum, having dispatched a 61-win Sonics team in 5 games with 4 consecutive victories coming by an average of 17 points, but Utah jumped on them from the start. Utah scored the game’s first 6 points and led by 11 after one quarter and 26 at halftime on their way to handing the Lakers what was at the time their worst postseason loss in franchise history.
The Jazz completely throttled the Lakers in all aspects of the game – confusing Shaq with double-teams and digs, beating the Lakers at their own fastbreak game, and most important in playoff basketball: halfcourt execution.
Here we examine Utah’s precision offense with a low-post pass from Karl Malone to Chris Morris for a layup and 3-point play (4:48-mark).
After feeding the post, in Jazzbasketball the post-feeder either runs through (baseline or middle cut through to the weakside) or the wings split. Here they split – with Morris (#34) coming up to set a screen for #10 Howard Eisley (circled). Morris’ defender (Kobe w/a mini-afro) now can’t double down on Malone (a major mismatch if allowed to go 1-on-1 on Corie Blount) because he has to decide how he’s going to defend the split. As any good high school coach will teach – Morris doesn’t stop moving after screening – he screens then cuts.
The Lakers opt to switch on the screen with Kobe jumping out on Eisley. Morris (who because he’s coming low-to-high already has a positional advantage off the screen) now has a step on his new defender (Van Exel) off the switch.
Malone – one of the game’s better low-post passers – hits Morris in stride and Morris eventually gathers himself for an easy layup and 3-point play opportunity.
This basic cut can work with a future hall-of-famer in the post or with an average player, as long as you have wings who screen and cut hard and a bigman who is a capable and willing passer. Not only does constant motion increase the difficulty of doubling-down on the block – it creats easy baskets so other players don’t get frozen out when running low-post oriented sets.
The Jazz ran this to perfection and their motion and execution is a primary reason they went on to sweep the Lakers and advance to their second consecutive NBA Finals. Due to the high-stakes (Conference Finals) and the fact that it came against the hated Lakers – the 1998 Western Conference Finals were perhaps the most enjoyable playoff series ever for JazzNation.