To those observers who felt that the defending champion Chicago Bulls would coast through the NBA playoffs, da Bulls were da pits. In its 16 playoff games that preceded the championship series opener against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday, Chicago lost five times. Compare that with the regular season, when Bulls loss number 5 came in game number 29. Michael Jordan and his supporting cast seemed ready to fold at several points against both the New York Knicks, in the second round of the playoffs, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the Eastern Conference final. Was it a sudden loss of will, a succumbing to pressure or a combination of the two that had affected the Bulls?
"Well, whatever it was, here we are again," said Jordan last Friday after he scored 16 points in the fourth period of a 99-94 Game 6 victory over Cleveland that clinched a spot for Chicago in the Finals for the second straight year.
The Bulls' opponents this time are the wonderfully talented and hungry-for-a-title Trail Blazers. Logic says that because Chicago had to negotiate seven hard games with the Knicks and another six with the Cavs, its chances of repeating are not good against the NBA's deepest team. But playoff basketball is not always logical. And for all the toil and trouble that the Bulls have endured since May 5, when the Knicks planted the seeds of doubt by upsetting Chicago 94-89 in Game 1 of the second round, it is necessary to remember two facts that have framed the Bulls' season:
•First, at no point was Chicago a great team; rather, it was—and still is—a very good team with a terrific record. Only three NBA teams have had regular-season marks better than the Bulls' 67-15 this year, but is it fair to compare this Chicago team, led by Jordan and Scottie Pippen, to the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers (69-13) of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich? Hardly. Or to the '66-67 Philadelphia 76ers (68-13) of Chamberlain, Luke Jackson, Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham? No way. These Bulls do, perhaps, stack up well against the '72-73 Boston Celtics (68-14) of John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White, but bear in mind that those Celtics did not make it to the Finals. When the Bulls remember that their team is composed of one true great (Jordan), one sometimes great (Pippen) and a collection of role players, they are successful. But when they play without effort, as they did in Game 2 of the series against Cleveland (a 107-81 defeat), their talent is not enough to get them by.
•Second, Chicago ended the series against the Cavaliers in championship form. Playing in Richfield Coliseum, one of the league's loudest and most hostile environments, Jordan's supporting cast propped up the Bulls for the first three quarters as Jordan, out of rhythm and swarmed by an aggressive Cavalier defense, made only five of 20 shots. But with the game on the line in the fourth period, Jordan took over, and his teammates were content to play tough defense, get him the ball and applaud his efforts. That is a formula that could win Chicago another championship—everyone starts, Jordan finishes.
These two factors don't explain everything, of course. But the gap between the Bulls of winter and the Bulls of late spring is not as great as one might think.
Still, how does one explain Chicago's complete dominance of the regular season? The Bulls never lost more than two games in a row—that was quite an accomplishment, even in what was a weak year in the East—and the next-best records were Portland's and Cleveland's 57-25. By way of explanation, Bulls coach Phil Jackson says, "This is a team that simply loves to compete. I'm convinced that's what sets us apart. We have guys that maybe just like to lose a little less than everybody else." Simple, but true. On a cold February night in Detroit or Minnesota or Boston, other players might take the evening off. But not Jordan. And that attitude influences Pippen, who in turn influences Horace Grant, and so on. Then, too, Chicago enjoyed an almost injury-free season; starters Jordan, Pippen, Grant and John Paxson missed only six games among them.
That the Bulls finished 67-15 was surprising in many ways. Partly because of the revelations in Sam Smith's best-selling The Jordan Rules and partly because of a natural maturity, Chicago learned to keep its family tensions under wraps this season, but that didn't mean such tensions didn't exist. At times old resentments about Jordan's hogging the limelight surfaced. At times there was dissatisfaction with the play of starting center Bill Cartwright, who did not have a good season. At times it was a struggle to coax consistent performances out of the second unit, and some of the reserves, particularly backup point guard B.J. Armstrong, did not react well to being the targets of criticism. After Game 4 of the series against Cleveland, both Jackson and Jordan mildly knocked the play of the bench, and Armstrong took exception. "I totally disagree," he said. "If Phil and Michael want to point to the bench, then I think it's something that needs to be talked about in-house instead of going to the media." That was not anything new, merely a more public variation on an old theme.
Says one Bulls insider who desires anonymity, "I guarantee you this: For all our success, Phil had a helluva harder time coaching this year's team, smoothing egos and settling problems and things like that, than he did last year's."
None of Chicago's internal disagreements were particularly serious. But neither was this a team that steamed into the postseason as a balanced, all-hands-pulling-together machine, as most observers believed it to be.