And what about the prospects for the postseason? Well, first of all, it was only five years ago that the big story line at the beginning of each NBA season was how difficult it was to repeat as champion. But after the Lakers did it in '88 and the Detroit Pistons did it in '90, repeating suddenly seemed easy. It isn't. Before the playoffs began, Jackson received a call from Bill Fitch, his old friend and mentor, who was then coach of the New Jersey Nets. "No matter what you accomplished in the regular season, I guarantee you this will be hard," said Fitch, who won a title with the Celtics in 1981 but could not repeat in '82 despite having a slightly better regular-season record. "Having pressure on you to do nothing less than win it all is extremely difficult. Make sure your team understands that."
And make no mistake about it, the Bulls have felt pressure in the playoffs, with the possible exception of the initial, three-game series against the Miami Heat, which Chicago swept. Some Bulls began to resent the constant second-guessing that comes with being the favorite. Not Jordan, who loves the spotlight, but certainly Pippen, no fan of the media to begin with. In terms of maturity and experience, this Chicago team does not compare well with the champions of recent vintage, the Pistons, the Lakers and the Celtics.
Couple that with the fact that it's harder to get motivated the second time around, and it's small wonder that Chicago has been plagued with uncertain and lackluster performances in the playoffs. Moreover, the Bulls have lacked the strong focus they had in last year's postseason. "Our entire motivation then was to beat Detroit," says Paxson. "It carried us through the early rounds, and when we got to the Pistons, there was no way they were going to beat us. We haven't had that type of feeling this year." So as a rallying point the Bulls seized eagerly on the punches that the Cavaliers' Danny Ferry-threw at Jordan in Game 4 of the Chicago-Cleveland series. When Bulls reserve Stacey King took down Ferry in the final minutes of Game 5, he was not "going for the ball," as he, Jackson and other Bulls claimed; he was clearly going after Ferry, an unlikely villain but a villain nevertheless. (Both Ferry and King were fined $5,000 for the separate incidents, which was ridiculous; Ferry's punches clearly came in the heal of the action, but King's takedown was dangerous and deserving of suspension.) It will be much easier for the Bulls to focus on such physical Blazer players as Jerome Kersey (page 27), Buck Williams, Kevin Duckworth, Cliff Robinson and Danny Ainge.
And then there is the matter of style. It's not so much that the Bulls do not know how to play the slower, more physical brand of playoff basketball—they did it in last year's sweep of the Pistons, after all—but that they aren't really inclined to do it, physically, mentally and tactically. Chicago's half-court triangle offense, an old idea given new life last year, has taken on a tired, predictable aspect.
At the other end of the court, the various injuries to wrist, ankle and back suffered by Pippen in the early stages of the Knick series, combined with a somewhat weakened Jordan (flu), forced Jackson to pull back his defense more than he wanted to against New York and Cleveland. The Bulls are not a full-throttle transition team, like the Blazers; their strength lies in opening up the game with defensive intensity, creating scoring opportunities ("run-outs," in their terminology) by trapping, double-teaming and, as assistant coach and defensive specialist Johnny Bach puts it, "flying around and creating havoc." Flying around will most likely return against wide-open Portland, which is more susceptible to pressure than some of Chicago's previous opponents were.
Finally, a great deal of credit must be given to the Bulls' opponents. Consider Chicago's postseason path to the Eastern title in 1991, what Bach called "the beautiful, smooth road": The Bulls swept a terrible Knick team in the first round, knocked oft' the disorganized Philadelphia 76ers 4-1 in the second and swept the plummeting Pistons in the conference finals. This year? Once Chicago got by Miami, it faced hungry teams coached, not incidentally, by two masters of preparation, the Knicks' Pat Riley and the Cavs' Fenny Wilkens. Whatever happens in the Finals, Chicago knows that next season it will face two solid conference rivals, Cleveland and New York.
Still, not all of the Bulls' struggles over the last month can be explained away. Jackson was surprised that Chicago lost its confidence and poise at times, a malady that has hurt the Trail Blazers in the past. And it is no small matter when an All-Star like Pippen is still somewhat baffled by his role in the half-court offense months after it should have become clear. After his desultory second-half performance (three shots, zero points) in Game 4 of the Cleveland series, Pippen said, "I just didn't get the opportunities. I guess there were other guys out on the court that were more important." To which a perplexed Jackson replied, "I don't know why Scottie took so few shots. He's got to look for shots. They don't necessarily come to him."
In truth, Pippen is only marginally effective when the defense is set up and waiting for him. But that shouldn't be a problem in an open-court series against the Blazers. "Portland's upbeat tempo will get us flowing again," said reserve forward Cliff Levingston last weekend, "and that's just what we need."
Based on their on-again, off-again performance in the Eastern portion of the postseason, the word underdog was bouncing lightly off the walls of the Bulls" locker room last Friday night. Jordan even mentioned it and then was asked if he really believed it.
"Well, no, I don't think we're underdogs," he said with a smile. "But it might help if you called us that."