The Chicago Bulls concluded a year of living dangerously on Sunday evening in their dilapidated madhouse on Madison, using an unlikely east of characters to fashion an unlikely comeback against a most likely collection of victims, the Portland Trail Blazers. On many occasions during what seemed to be a death march of a postseason, the Bulls appeared ready to tumble into the abyss, but at no time were they teetering more precariously than at the outset of the fourth quarter in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Portland was leading 79-64, the customarily loud and proud Chicago Stadium crowd had all but given up, Michael Jordan was on the bench, and the game—and perhaps the season—was in the hands of the group that His Airness has often referred to as "my supporting cast."
No more than an hour later, however, the Bulls stood together on the scorer's table at the stadium, series MVP Jordan, Olympic teammate Scottie Pippen and all the Bobby Hansens and Stacey Kings waving to the crowd, hugging loved ones, swaying unrhythmically but enthusiastically to the dual accompaniments of music and champagne, and passing the NBA championship trophy down the line. Their series-clinching 97-93 victory over the Blazers had written in indelible ink a point that assistant coach Johnny Bach had made eight months ago, just before Chicago embarked on its quest to repeat. "Only the Bulls," said Bach, "can beat the Bulls."
Indeed, whenever Chicago had to win a game during its seemingly endless 22-game postseason, it went out and won it. Technically, of course, Game 6 was not a must win because the Bulls held a 3-2 lead going into it. But to have the series extended to a seventh game was a fate-tempting uncertainty that even this cocky group did not want to risk. Besides, with Olympic training camp beginning this Sunday in San Diego, Jordan's tee times were in peril.
Is that not, then, the definition of a great team—one that wins when it has to? A quick glance at the Chicago bench reveals a Will Perdue here and a Craig Hodges there, but with 67 victories during the regular season and a second straight championship (the Bulls are the third team in a row to repeat, succeeding the Los Angeles Lakers in 1988 and the Detroit Pistons in '90), doesn't Chicago deserve to be mentioned among the best ever, with, say, the 1971-72 Lakers or the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers?
"Let's just say they're a very good team with one great player," said Danny Ainge in a quiet Portland locker room after Game 6. That was a fair assessment.
"I'm still not sure the best team won the series," said one of Ainge's teammates, Buck Williams. Now, that was plainly ridiculous.
Led by their serene superstar, Clyde Drexler, the Blazers did earn points during the series for their unwavering friendliness and overall guy-next-door demeanor. Even when Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey and Cliff Robinson complained about the referees, as they did after Game 6, they sounded, at worst, like Eddie Haskell. At the same time, though, the Blazers did nothing to shed the image that has clung to them over the past few seasons. To wit: that they are a team with outstanding talent and an astounding capacity for self-destruction in the stretch because of nerves (too many) or brains (not enough).
Portland has lost late in the playoffs three consecutive years (the previous two defeats were to the Pistons in the '90 championship series and to the Lakers in the '91 Western Conference finals), and if nothing else, the Blazers' identity now seems clear—they're the Denver Broncos in tank tops. Portland's core personnel is young enough and healthy enough to return to the Finals—and Drexler says the Blazers will—but management might have to make some changes. As Ainge said after Game 6, "This loss will stick with us for a long time."
In the first three quarters on Sunday, Portland played near perfect basketball, which was not surprising. The Blazers felt little pressure, for after Portland's blowout loss at home in Game 5, Sunday's game had been all but conceded to the Bulls by everybody but the Blazers. The Bulls' pregame chatter, in fact, ran to parade routes and golf games. For the first time in the series, Porter took the ball hard to the basket, exploiting his physical advantage over both Bulls starter John Paxson and his backup, B.J. Armstrong, and Kersey (14 points, six rebounds, two steals in the first half) roamed the court at both ends like the Pippenesque free-lancer he's supposed to be.
Portland led 50-44 at intermission and 79-64 after three periods. As for the Bulls, Pippen seemed to be heading for another playoff migraine with a poor shooting performance—he was 4 for 12 through three quarters—and Jordan, who had blown two layups early in the third quarter and had another rejected by Drexler, was so leg-weary that he looked as if he were lugging two bags around Pebble Beach. So Chicago coach Phil Jackson decided he needed "to do something." Out for the fourth period marched the quintet of Armstrong, Hansen, King, Scott Williams and Pippen, the lone starter. (Did someone mention the '72 Lakers?) And what was Jordan thinking over on the bench? That a comeback was possible? "In my mind, frankly, no, I didn't think it was possible," he said.