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Passing The Test
Hank Hersch
May 25, 1992
After struggling with the Knicks for two weeks, the Chicago Bulls got an A+ in Game 7
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May 25, 1992

Passing The Test

After struggling with the Knicks for two weeks, the Chicago Bulls got an A+ in Game 7

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If Chicago was seeking a soothing vision for Game 7, it appeared in the form of O'Donnell. The Bulls had complained repeatedly about New York's physical play. Jackson had likened it to "hand-to-hand combat," "muscleball" and "football." These and other disparaging remarks about the officiating cost him $2,500.

The Bulls believed they would get a fairer shake from O'Donnell, the NBA's best ref, and his veteran aides, Hue Hollins and Ed T. Rush. And from the Bulls' point of view, they did. Although O'Donnell didn't assess McDaniel a pregame clipping penalty, he was tougher on Wilkins, who until Sunday had helped hold Jordan (some would say literally) to 46.9% shooting. In the first quarter Wilkins drew two whistles for muscling Jordan—who would make 12 of 13 free throws—20 feet from the basket. "When Michael sees that kind of officiating, he's going to the basket," said Wilkins afterward. "J knew. He knew. I knew he knew."

Clearly this wasn't the team the Knicks had come to know and mug. "Whenever you have an officiating crew like that, it's hard to beat us," Grant said. "We felt all along the Knicks were pushing us, and we finally got the calls."

The Bulls' mewling about the officiating tended to obscure New York's gutty play. It was an ascendant series for center Patrick Ewing, who for the first time in his seven seasons in New York had a supporting cast that enabled him to measure his mettle. In Game 6 he shook off a sprain of his left ankle in the third quarter and roared back to score 11 of his 27 points in the fourth. When he returned to the game after only a few minutes on the bench, he evoked memories of former New York center Willis Reed limping out for the opening tip in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals despite a hip injury and inspiring the Knicks past the Lakers. "Patrick played like a thoroughbred," said Jordan.

After Game 6, as Ewing dressed gingerly by his locker, guard John Starks sat nearby, explaining how sure he had been that Ewing would return to the game. The defiant Starks had outscored Jordan 27-21 and shamelessly tackled Pippen, an act that earned him a $5,000 fine. As Starks rambled on, Ewing couldn't resist interrupting. The true reason he had gone back in, Ewing said, was that "I had [ Starks] on the bench yelling in my ears, 'No pain! No pain!' "

New York drew that sort of willpower from Riley, whose strategy, preparation and motivation were nearly decisive. And for 6� games the team's belief shook the theretofore unshakable Bulls. "The combination of intensity, intelligence and commitment from the Knicks is so high, it scares the Bulls," said Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl before Sunday's game. "It took a big swipe at all the confidence they've built the past two seasons."

So what sort of Bulls team will emerge from this series? It may be a tired one. Even though Chicago won 41 regular-season games by 10 or more points, Jordan, Pippen and Grant each averaged more than 39 minutes a game in their quest to reach 70 victories, and their work loads only went up against New York. In addition, Chicago's Bullpen, a collection of specialists on the bench, didn't seem to find its rhythm until Game 7, when it racked up 30 points. During the series Jackson shuttled his subs back and forth in no discernible pattern. "Basketball is a game you have to let come to you," said Bulls reserve forward Scott Williams. "When all you get is short minutes, sometimes you can't get into the flow of the game."

On the other hand, Chicago has the home court advantage throughout the playoffs as well as its earsplitting crowd of 18,676, which had never been more raucous than it was on Sunday. Moreover, neither the Cleveland Cavaliers (page 18), the Bulls' opponents in the Eastern Conference finals, nor the two remaining Western Conference teams, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Utah Jazz, are as physical as the Knicks. Nor do any of these teams have a defensive presence inside as gifted as Ewing.

A sense of relief swept through Chicago's locker room after Game 7. The phrase 8 MORE, scribbled on a message board, reminded the Bulls of how many victories they still needed to retain their title. Said Jordan, "This series was like a slap in the face."

In Jordan, the Bulls have the best pair of hands on the planet with which to slap back and move forward.

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