The Chicago Bulls-Cleveland Cavaliers playoff series should have been contested in a shrink's office—soundproof room, muted lighting and a bearded man, fingers clasped thoughtfully together, leaning forward and asking, "But how do you really feel about yourself?"
Elbows and insults flew in the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Bulls and the New York Knicks, but when the Bulls took on the Cavs in a final that matched the two best teams in the East, it was suddenly buzzwords at 94 feet: confidence...motivation...determination...will...mental edge...focus...intensity...peaks and valleys. It was enough to make you wish the Knicks' Xavier McDaniel were still around to plant an elbow in somebody's windpipe and holler, "Shut up and play the bleeping game!"
The series finally offered something in the way of playoff-intensity basketball, instead of case studies in psychology, on Monday when the Cavs beat the Bulls 99-85 at Richfield Coliseum to tie the series at 2-2.
But Games 1, 2 and 3 were the type of noncompetitive blowouts that wouldn't seem possible at this stage in the playoffs, particularly since it was the home team on bended knee in Games 2 and 3. The series was billed as an antidote to the Bulls-Knicks war games that preceded it, as a matchup of teams that depend on mind more than muscle, technique more than testosterone. And, indeed, in the first three games there were no serious takedowns or tussles. (There was one flare-up in Game 4 when Cleveland forward Danny Ferry was ejected in the first quarter for throwing a punch at Michael Jordan.)
But no one realized that the Bulls and the Cavs had similarly fragile psyches, vulnerable to letdowns, sudden turnabouts and what Chicago's backup center, Professor Will Perdue, called "total role reversal."
Then again, those sudden reversals have been a recurring theme throughout the Eastern playoffs. The Cavs lost Game 6 of the semifinals to the Boston Celtics by 31 points and then buried Boston 122-104 in Game 7 two days later. The Knicks battled the Bulls through six bloody games and 30 minutes of a seventh but then caved in completely and lost 110-81.
In the Eastern finals the Cavs, who should have been inspired by their first appearance in the NBA's final four since 1976, went down with hardly a whimper in Game 1,103-89; the Bulls fell behind by a mind-numbing 20-4 in Game 2 at Chicago Stadium and lost 107-81; and, impossible as it seems, the Cavs got off to an even worse start in their building in Game 3, trailing by 26-4 after eight minutes, and lost 105-96. What was going on here?
Here are three theories:
•There is no team in the NBA this season that truly believes in itself, one with that breezy, cocksure attitude that set apart, for example, the Detroit Pistons of a couple of years ago. Thus, this season's teams are all subject to self-doubt and letdown when an opponent makes a strong stand. The Celtics and Knicks, for all they achieved as Atlantic Division underdogs, didn't really believe they could win it all. And while the Cavs know their talent might be good enough to win a championship, they are unaccustomed to playing on such a well-lighted stage. Remember that at this time last year, having just completed a regular season plagued by injuries, they were plotting their strategy in the lottery. As for Chicago, well, it did win 67 games this season, and it is led by Jordan. But after seemingly getting out from under Jordan's shadow last year, the other Bulls have once again begun to subordinate their games to his.
•More than most teams, the Bulls and the Cavs key off one player, and when he is shut down, so is the whole operation. In Game 2, Jordan was brought to his knees by the twin demons of flu symptoms, which were in his throat, and Cleveland guard Craig Ehlo, who was in his face. Jordan missed his first six shots, and other Bulls like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, who should have stepped to the forefront, evidently thought they should "be like Mike." Said Chicago coach Phil Jackson, "Sometimes we feed off the energy of Michael far too much." Then, in Game 3, it was Cleveland's indispensable quarterback, Mark Price, who was kept in check, and the Cavs consequently sculled their feet and hung their heads. They did a lot better in Game 4 even though Price was limited to 30 minutes because of a stomach virus. He had only 13 points and two assists, but they still prevailed.