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On the Edge
Jack McCallum
June 15, 1992
In the NBA championship series—a.k.a. the Finals From Hell—the Bulls bungled their way to a tenuous 2-1 lead over the Trail Blazers
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June 15, 1992

On The Edge

In the NBA championship series—a.k.a. the Finals From Hell—the Bulls bungled their way to a tenuous 2-1 lead over the Trail Blazers

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It was in game 3 that the Chicago Bulls seized control of last year's NBA Finals, taking a 2-1 lead after an exquisitely played 104-96 overtime win against the Los Angeles Lakers. On Sunday a 94-84 defeat of the Trail Blazers in Portland gave the Bulls another 2-1 lead, yet Chicago's grasp on this championship series seemed less secure. Not, mind you, because the Blazers presented such formidable opposition in the first three games, but because the series has been so unevenly played, with long stretches of bafflingly poor execution by both teams.

Indeed, the operative word of the Finals From Hell was lacking. Everyone was lacking something at one time or another, be it energy, focus, intelligence or that old chalkboard favorite, "proper floor spacing." Going in, no one knew exactly what to expect in this showdown of evenly matched athletes, but no one was ready for this. Ladies and gentlemen, it's the Orlando Magic versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

As for the Michael and Clyde All-World shooting-guard subplot, it was advantage Chicago through Game 3. Except for one atypical loss of composure down the stretch in Game 2, Michael Jordan's performance had been, by and large, Jordanesque. But the Blazers' Clyde Drexler, like his cast of co-performers on both teams, had experienced more ups and downs than a George Bush popularity poll. Drexler put together a 32-point, nine-rebound stat line on Sunday that was, for all its apparent luster, deceiving, for at no time did he take over the game and make the kind of strong one-on-one statement that the Finals demand.

Then again, perhaps Drexler was demoralized when he looked around and saw that he was home alone. Portland point guard Terry Porter, who ran around and through both the Phoenix Suns' Kevin Johnson and the Utah Jazz's John Stockton in the Blazers' two previous playoff series, could not find a path to the hoop in the first three games of this one, despite the fact that he enjoyed a physical advantage over his Chicago counterpart, John Paxson. Porter took only two shots and had only two assists in the second half of Sunday's game. Buck Williams, so strong and so vital (19 points, 14 rebounds) in Portland's 115-104 win last Friday in Game 2, was 1 for 5 from the floor in Game 3. Jerome Kersey and reserves Cliff Robinson and Danny Ainge were a danger to anyone sitting around, but not in, the basket. Collectively, they made only 10 of 36 shots.

Sunday's game was such a nightmare for the Blazers that they had to endure the nauseating tableau of overweight Stacey King racking up six points and getting three rebounds in a rare crunch-time appearance for Chicago. (Starting center Bill Cartwright had fouled out early in the fourth period.) Two days earlier a mimeographed sheet advertising the bogus Stacey King Basketball Camp for White Players over 250 Pounds had circulated around the Bulls' locker room. Yes, bear in mind, Blazers, that in this dizzy, turn-about series, yesterday's joke can become tomorrow's hero.

Still, Game 3 was a telling one for the Trail Blazers, who should have been sky-high after their performance in Game 2 but were instead disorganized and unaggressive, characteristics they also demonstrated in losing Game 1 at Chicago Stadium by a score of 122-89. NBA fans have a right to expect championship-caliber basketball in June, but for the most part they haven't gotten it this year. What's going on? Consider:

•Chicago has raised defense to a fine art, and that sometimes makes for less than great basketball. (See NBA champion Detroit Pistons in 1988-89 and '89-90.) Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant are all quick enough to get to the middle to clog up a Porter penetration or to obstruct an outside jumper by Kersey. The Bulls are less vulnerable to mismatches than any other team—so what if Grant, their power forward, gets caught out front on a quick guard, or if Pippen, the small forward, has to guard a center—because they make quick rotations that keep their double-teaming effective.

In addition, Chicago did an excellent job of stopping Portland's vaunted transition game. Whenever Paxson walks on the floor, assistant coach Johnny Bach has instructed Paxson to "T.A." ("tear ass") back upcourt as soon as the Bulls shoot and, if possible, to "take a teammate with you." Influenced by Paxson's hustling, one of the gazelles generally arrives soon afterward.

•The Blazers were, as they claimed almost to a man, tired in Game 3. That sounds like a lame excuse, but it's one worth examining. Games 1 and 2 were played on the nights of June 3 and June 5 in Chicago, which left only one day before Sunday's Game 3 half a continent away. The more logical Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday set was not considered, because NBC wants its Thursday prime-time programming left intact. Hence this could be the first championship series in which Sam Malone's bar played a role.

Friday's overtime win was exhausting for the Blazers, who flew home right after the game and worked out on Saturday. (It was an exhausting weekend, too, for the 1,500 fans who greeted the Trail Blazers' plane when it arrived in Portland at 3:30 a.m. Saturday.) Chicago, by contrast, took a noon flight on Saturday. And when coach Phil Jackson noticed that his players were far more interested in sleeping than in watching game films on the plane, he called off a scheduled practice in Portland. "We were very tired yesterday, and we played tired today," said Blazer coach Rick Adelman on Sunday. He wasn't whining; he was stating a fact. Maybe next time he will make R&R a priority.

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