It was seldom pretty, but often gritty, as the Bulls made
comeback after heroic comeback to win their fifth NBA
by Phil Taylor
by Phil Taylor
The confetti was still floating down from the rafters of the United Center when someone asked Phil Jackson about this just-completed championship odyssey. Had it been fun? It was a softball of a question, designed to let the Chicago Bulls' coach praise his team, to give him the opportunity to wax poetic about his five-time NBA champions. But Jackson took the question more seriously. After a punishing postseason in which nearly every game was a battle, he didn't toss off some light and breezy response. "Fun?" he said. "No, this wasn't a fun journey. This was hard work. Hard, grueling work. This one we struggled for, every step of the way."
But what a magnificent struggle. The Bulls fought through the postseason, overcoming illness and injury and maybe even a slight sense of complacency, not to mention valiant, persistent opposition. But in the end they prevailedor perhaps that is the wrong way to characterize it. Maybe Michael Jordan put it better, as he walked down a hallway at the arena after the Bulls had beaten the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, 90-86, to win their fifth championship in seven years. "Well," he said to no one in particular, "we survived."
The Bulls spent the entire postseason surviving. Time and again they dodged bullets, snatching victories away with a closing flurry and leaving opponents muttering about missed opportunities. They lost four playoff games, only one more than they had in their 15-3 march through the postseason in 1996, but somehow this year felt completely different. "This one wasn't as pretty," said forward Scottie Pippen. "It was a fight, a struggle, whatever you want to call it. But Phil told us a few days ago that the harder the journey, the better it feels when you get to your destination. He was right."
The final game against the Jazz was typical not only of the series but also of the Bulls' entire postseason. Chicago trailed most of the game, and the Jazz led 70-64 entering the fourth quarter. But as they had throughout the playoffs, defense and Jordan saved the day. The Bulls limited Utah to 16 points in the final period, and the score stood at 86-86 with 28 seconds left when Jackson called timeout to set up a final play. As the Bulls came out of the huddle and headed back onto the court, Jordan turned to his teammate, guard Steve Kerr, and told him to be ready. Jordan anticipated that when he got the ball, Kerr's defender, John Stockton, would move over to double-team him, leaving Kerr open. "I'll make it," Kerr told Jordan. But later, Kerr, who had shot poorly throughout the series, would admit that the thought going through his head was more like, Will I make it?
The play unfolded exactly as Jordan had envisioned. He got the ball as the 24-second shot clock ran down, and Stockton left Kerr to come over and help teammate Bryon Russell guard Jordan. When that happened, Jordan quickly dished the ball to Kerr, who was standing just inside the top of the key. His shot dropped cleanly through the hoop with five seconds remaining. When forward Toni Kukoc tipped the inbounds pass on Utah's final possession, allowing Pippen to intercept the ball and feed him for one last basket, the Bulls had the victory and a 4-2 win in the best-of-seven series.
It was the final gritty comeback performance in a playoffs that had been filled with such last-minute, game-saving efforts by the Bulls. Chicago opened the postseason against the Washington Bullets, exactly the kind of young, talented and unpredictable group capable of upsetting a favored teamif that favored team wasn't at the top of its game. And Chicago was far from the top of its game. Kukoc had missed 22 of the last 26 games of the regular season with a strained arch in his right foot, and forward Dennis Rodman had sat out the final 13 games with a sprained left knee.
Both Kukoc and Rodman showed signs of rust in Game 1Kukoc missed nine of his 10 field goal attempts, and Rodman grabbed only nine rebounds, seven below his regular-season averagebut the Bulls won anyway, 98-86. The game would prove typical of Chicago's postseason: The Bulls won even when they didn't play particularly well because they showed a champion's mettle late in the game. "We can play with them," said Bullets forward Juwan Howard after Game 1. "We didn't play well, but we can play with them."
In Game 2 the Bullets' undoing was their inability to play with Jordan. But then again, his own teammates couldn't keep up with him either. Jordan scored 55 pointsone more than the 11 other Bulls combinedin a 109-104 win. It was the eighth time in his career that he had scored 50 or more points in a playoff game. "There's nothing you could do," said Washington forward Tracy Murray. "You double-, triple-team him and he's triple-pumping, falling and fading away, shooting up-and-unders from 15 and 17 feet away. He had his whole game going. I don't think Hercules could have stopped him tonight." The Herculean task of checking Jordan on this evening fell to Calbert Cheaney, who had an otherwise stellar game, leading the Bullets with 26 points. "Calbert played a great game," said Washington coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "He just met Mr. Jordan." Mr. Jordan offered a simple explanation: "I got into that zone. I couldn't get out."
The Bulls finished their sweep of the best-of-five series three nights later when Pippen picked up a loose ball in the waning seconds and slammed home the clinching basket in a 96-95 win. "That was an exhausting first-round series," Jackson said when it was over. "And the work is only going to get harder." He was right.
Chicago had a five-day layoff before its second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, who came in right out of a five-game win over the Detroit Pistons. The Bulls were sluggish in Game 1, falling behind by 16 before Jordan bailed them out with a 20-point third quarter that put them up 77-70. The Hawks wouldn't go away, however, and it took a Pippen three-pointer with 43.9 seconds left to seal the 100-97 victory.
In defeat, the Hawks had sent a message: We might have blown it tonight, but we aren't going down without a fight. "We came in here feeling positive about what we could accomplish, and we still feel good about that," said coach Lenny Wilkens. "Chicago's the champion and you give them respect, but that's it. We're not in awe."
In Game 2, for the first time in the postseason, Chicago wasn't able to find a higher gear when it needed one. Atlanta's 103-95 victory was only the third playoff loss at the United Center in Bulls history. The Hawks' backcourt plagued Chicago as shooting guard Steve Smith scored 27 points and point guard Mookie Blaylock 26.
The loss, which by all rights should have put the Bulls down 2-0 heading to Atlanta, caused a stir in Chicago and led to backbiting within the team. "I didn't think they could play any worse than they did Tuesday [in Game 1], and they did Thursday [in Game 2]," said Jackson. Pippen focused his ire on the Bulls' big men. "They're not doing the things to make the game easier for us smaller guys," he said. "Anytime we have to have Michael come in and get 16 rebounds [as he did in Game 2], that's not called for." Jordan, for his part, did his best lightning-rod impersonation, welcoming more than his fair share of the blame. "I'm not going to point to certain people; that's when division comes," he said. "I missed a lot of layups, a lot of tip-ins, a lot of shots. Other players missed shots. But I don't think we should bury ourselves and say this series is over."
When it came to pointing fingers, Rodman was frequently the pointee. He had burrowed under the skin of both Hawks forward Christian Laettner and center Dikembe Mutombo, but his otherwise ineffective play and his misbehavior12 rebounds and three technicals in two gameswere wearing on his teammates. "If he's not going to lead us in rebounding, don't lead us in technical fouls," said Pippen. "Because we don't need those."
Jackson started second-year man Jason Caffey in Rodman's place in Game 3, but the Bulls again found themselves staring at a double-digit deficit in the first half. Then, just when it looked as if the reports of their demise might not have been premature after all, the Bulls began to play like a truly dominant team. In the second half they displayed offensive balancesix players finished the game with 10 or more pointsand defensive tenacity, holding the Hawks to 28 points. "The second half was the best we've played in weeks," Jordan said after the 100-80 win. "It was the first time it seemed like all of us found our rhythm at the same time."
The victory deflated the Hawks. The Bulls grabbed control of Game 4 early and held a 22-point lead after three quarters. A furious Atlanta rally cut the Chicago lead to 83-80 with 55.4 seconds left, but the Hawks could get no closer. After that, wrapping up the series in Game 5 at the United Center was just a formality, and Chicago cruised, 107-92.