The Utah Jazz had started coming into their own as a franchise in 1984, when they began consistently reaching the playoffs. Head coach Frank Layden handed off the keys to Jerry Sloan in 1989 and the postseason spots kept coming. The 1992 Utah Jazz produced the next significant breakthrough—they became the first team to reach the Western Conference Finals.
Utah was built around three great players. Yes, three. Basketball fans from that era certainly remember the great Karl Malone, a power forward who averaged 28 points/11 rebounds per game. And they undoubtedly recall the outstanding point guard, John Stockton, who scored 16 and dished out an astonishing 14 assists per game on average. The player who might not be as well remembered is another Malone, this one named Jeff (no relation). Jeff ran in the backcourt with Stockton and was 20-ppg scorer himself.
These three core players were surrounded by Blue Edwards, a forward who chipped in 13ppg and Mark Eaton, the big center who got six rebounds a night. Tyrone Corbin, a future head coach in this organization also got six boards per game.
Utah started the season relatively slowly. They lost to Eastern Conference contenders from Boston, New York and Cleveland , were 17-12 going into Christmas. By the end of January the record was up to 29-17 and the Jazz found their groove in February. They got a triple-overtime win over Michael Jordan’s Bulls, the defending & eventual champ. A home-friendly schedule enabled Utah to rip off 10 wins in 11 games, including wins over the Celtics and Cavaliers.
The Jazz were closing in on the 2-seed in the Western Conference and had to catch Golden State. They blew out the Warriors 138-99 on April 13. The win simultaneously pulled them even with Golden State in the standings and gave them the head-to-head tiebreaker. Another tough win, this time over playoff-bound San Antonio, secured Utah’s #2 spot in the draw.
The Los Angeles Clippers were the first playoff opponent and were better than their 45-37 record and 7-seed may have indicated. The Clippers had changed coaches mid-stream, bringing on the great Larry Brown. They had gone 23-12 to close the regular season. They were led by Danny Manning, who helped Brown win an NCAA title at Kansas four years earlier and was averaging 19 points/7 rebounds now in the pros. Ron Harper, who would later become a mainstay of the late 1990s Chicago Bulls championship teams, was also on hand and averaged 18ppg.
Utah’s Big Three was ready and they shot 56 percent in Game 1. Karl Malone went for 32/10, while Jeff Malone poured in 29 and Stockton dished out 21 assists in a 115-97 win. Game 2 was a similar story—Karl’s line was 32/13, Jeff popped in 23 and Stockton had 19 assists. Utah also enjoyed a huge advantage at the free throw line, with a 34-11 scoring edge and they won the game, 103-92.
The first round was a best-of-five affair in those days and Utah was not ready to face a desperate Clippers team on the road in Game 3. They were outrebounded 43-30 and lost 98-88. Karl Malone looked to put the Jazz on his back in Game 4, with a huge 44/11 performance. But his supporting cast had another off-game, the Clippers were again more aggressive on the boards and a 115-107 loss sent this series back to Salt Lake City for a decisive fifth game.
Momentum was all going against Utah and it stayed that way for a half, as they trailed by twelve at intermission. The margin was knocked down to four by the end of the third quarter and the Utah defense kicked it up a notch. They held Los Angeles to 12 points in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t a pretty performance—Karl Malone shot 5-for-17. But it was one marked by effort, as Utah’s 59-37 rebounding edge bore witness. The 98-89 win sent them to the second round.
Golden State had been upset by the Seattle SuperSonics (today’s Oklahoma City Thunder), another team that had show big improvement after a midseason coaching change. Seattle brought on George Karl and a team that was muddling along at. .500, closed with a 27-15 flourish. Ricky Pierce, a 22-ppg scorer in the backcourt, led a multi-pronged offensive attack. Derrick McKey, Eddie Johnson and Shawn Kemp all averaged at least 15ppg and there was a young point guard named Gary Payton who would do okay for himself in the NBA.
Utah trailed Seattle by a point going into the fourth quarter of Game 1, but the Jazz were playing efficiently. They shot 54 percent and it was business as usual with the three stars. Karl went for 30/10, while Jeff scored 22 and Stockton hit 16 points and handed out 15 assists. The final was 108-100. Jeff Malone came out in Game 2 and knocked down 33 points to lead the way in a 103-97 win. Utah had again defended their home floor to open a series.
But the road in Game 3 again tripped them up. They were up three going into the fourth quarter and shot the ball well, at 56 percent. But Jeff Malone had an off-game and Stockton committed seven turnovers. Utah ended up losing 104-98.
Stockton again struggled in Game 4, missing eight of nine shots from the floor. But both Malones were clicking, as Jeff scored 24 and Karl added 24. In a defensive battle, Utah got their first road win of the playoffs, 89-83. It all but sealed this series and the Jazz made it official with a 111-101 win in Game 5. The stars all shone bright in the clinching win, but the big difference was Corbin coming off the bench with 15 points/11 rebounds.
The conference finals were at hand and the Portland Trail Blazers were waiting. The Blazers were in this round for the third consecutive year. They had reached the NBA Finals in 1990 and were stopped only by Magic Johnson and the Lakers in 1991. Portland was loaded, led by a great backcourt with Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler. They had a frontline that was deep and physical. The Blazers had won 57 games in the regular season and were looking to validate their #1 playoff seed.
Utah was crushed by 25 points in a series opener that included a poor night from Karl Malone. The three stars combined for 70 points in Game 2, but 16 turnovers and an inability to stop Porter and Drexler were decisive in a 119-112 loss.
Home was still a pleasant place to be though and the Jazz continued their perfect postseason run in front of their own fans. Karl Malone scored 39, Porter was held in check and Utah rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit to win 97-89. In Game 4, they forced Drexler into a rough shooting night while the Malones combined for 61 points. The 121-112 win put the Jazz squarely back in the series.
They were still going to need a road win and Game 5 was there for the taking. Karl Malone was electric, with a 38/14 night and he carried the Jazz into overtime. But Stockton had an off-game and Portland’s well-balanced lineup prevailed 127-121. Game 6 back home was another tight one, tied going into the fourth quarter. Stockton’s struggles continued though, as he and Jeff Malone combined to shoot 12-for-30. Utah’s first home loss of the playoffs, 105-97, ended their season.
1992 was still a breakthrough year, the first time the Utah Jazz had really competed deep into the playoffs. They would get back to the conference finals in 1994 and 1996. The next big breakthrough came in 1997 and 1998, when they reached the NBA Finals and were denied only by the greatness of Michael Jordan.