Before game 7 of the NBA eastern conference semifinals at Chicago Stadium on Sunday, referee Jake O'Donnell strode onto the court and interrupted New York Knick forward Xavier McDaniel, who was doing his stretching exercises. O'Donnell asked McDaniel to show him his fingernails. The X-Man has nails on the longish side, but after a quick inspection, O'Donnell walked away chuckling, satisfied that the talons in question were short of lethal. A few hours later O'Donnell's cursory hand check did indeed seem laughable. For after the Chicago Bulls had blown out New York 110-81 to win a scratch-and-claw series, it was once again clear that the most dangerous digits on any court are the well-manicured ones belonging to Michael Jordan.
Picking Jordan's defining moment in this game isn't easy. It may have come as early as the Bulls' first possession, when he drove headlong into the lane to draw a foul and made the two free throws; it may have come later in the first quarter, when he went jaw-to-jaw with a fractious McDaniel and they each received a technical from O'Donnell; or it may have come as late as the third quarter, when Jordan keyed a Bulls surge by weaving through three Knicks for an acrobatic layup, stole the ensuing in-bounds pass, lost the ball and then raced downcourt to strip McDaniel of the ball as X drove in for what would have been a surefire deuce. In the first seventh-game victory of his magical career, Jordan scored 42 points and made certain the defending champs stopped acting like defensive champs. "It was the way he got his points," said New York guard Gerald Wilkins. "He got his team going. That's what superstars do."
Chicago forward Scottie Pippen, who contributed 17 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, got a lift when he saw Jordan confront McDaniel in the first quarter. "He was showing that we weren't going to back down," Pippen said.
Said power forward Horace Grant, whose three blocked shots in the third quarter ignited Chicago's fast break and helped stretch a 56-51 halftime lead to 79-64, "Michael really got us going; then the other guys started to contribute. When everyone's contributing, we're very tough to beat."
Jordan made his point by where he made his points. "We never feared going into the paint," he said. "We wanted to break them down."
Through the first six games New York had established a neo-Pistonian toughness and a hard-shell interior defense that the Bulls had trouble cracking. The Knicks had outrebounded, outassisted and outshot Chicago from both the field and the free throw line. And in the Bulls' 100-86 loss in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden last Thursday night, Jordan had converted only nine of 25 shots, 22 of which were perimeter jumpers. Afterward Wilkins proclaimed that New York had hounded Jordan into becoming a "mistake player."
So as they headed back to Chicago, the Bulls were on the brink of suffering the biggest playoff upset since 1981, when the champion Los Angeles Lakers fell in the first round to the Houston Rockets. Jordan questioned the character of his team. "We didn't have anything to defend last year," he said, "so we were more aggressive. We should have the same kind of hunger this year, but we don't."
For most of this season and last, Chicago had faced scarcely a speck of adversity, having gone 15-2 in the 1991 playoffs and 67-15 during the 1991-92 regular season. However, when the Bulls were confronted by the intractable Knicks, their stature seemed to diminish and their composure dissolved. "At one time they had the same things we have," said Knickerbocker coach Pat Riley early last week. "Hunger, spirit and heart."
Indeed, the Knicks were the aggressors before Game 7. Last Saturday forward Anthony Mason underscored how he felt about the Bulls by showing up for a workout at New York's practice facility in Purchase, N.Y., in a red-and-black warm-up. "First I'll take their colors," said Mason. "Then I'll take their names."
Meanwhile, in Deerfield, Ill., Jordan and Pippen stole out of practice without speaking to the press. While Riley spoke ominously of the Knicks' "defining the reality of the situation," Chicago coach Phil Jackson recommended that his players go home and rent Hanto Yo, a film about an Indian warrior who hunts in his attempt to become a man. Grant actually looked for the flick, but to no avail. "So I meditated instead." he said.