It has been billed as the ultimate confrontation, Air Jordan vs. Shaq, which is misleading because they confront each other only occasionally. Every now and again Chicago Bull guard Michael Jordan will soar down the lane to find Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal in his path, and O'Neal will periodically look down to find Jordan slapping at the ball during one of the Bulls' countless efforts to double-team him. But this is not Chamberlain against Russell, or even Ewing against Olajuwon. These rivals do not often stare into each other's eyes.
In fact, the most remarkable aspect of the competition between Jordan and O'Neal in the Eastern Conference semifinal series that unfolded last week was that they came in contact at all, considering the myriad opponents they had to wade through. Shaq was so bedeviled by the Hack Pack—Bull centers Luc Longley, Will Perdue and Bill Wennington—that he put out a call for a tag-team partner in what had turned into a steel-cage match under the boards. "Hulk [Hogan], I need you, man," O'Neal said after Game 2.
Jordan, meanwhile, had his own three-headed foe. There was Jordan vs. the NBA, whose policy he was defying by continuing to wear his preretirement jersey number, 23, instead of the number 45 he chose when he returned to the league. There was Jordan vs. the media, to whom he did not speak all last week—despite the urging of league officials—except for a brief television interview after Game 4 on Sunday. And there was Jordan vs. Jordan, the current model vs. the preretirement version of himself, who seemed to live in midair and never fail when the game hung in the balance.
Both O'Neal and Jordan have been alternately the victor and the vanquished in their various side battles, just as their teams alternated wins in the best-of-seven series that was tied 2-2 after the Bulls' 106-95 win in Chicago on Sunday, with Game 5 scheduled for Tuesday in Orlando. Though they had played for a week and settled nothing, both teams had learned quite a bit about their opponents and themselves. The Magic found that opponents who think Jordan isn't quite the spectacular player he was before his 17-month sabbatical from the NBA would be wise to keep that opinion to themselves, lest they be subjected to the kind of 38-point scolding Jordan gave in the Bulls' 104-94 Game 2 win in Orlando on May 10. That performance came in response to Magic guard Nick Anderson's innocent suggestion that the 32-year-old Jordan might have a tad less spring in his step than he did when he was leading Chicago to three straight NBA championships from 1991 to '93.
Jordan's performance was so convincing that it took only one more game—in which he scored 40 points, though the Bulls lost 110-101—for another question to be raised: Was Jordan's domination of the offense (he took 30 and 31 shots in Games 2 and 3, respectively) limiting the effectiveness of his teammates? But Jordan had the answer for that one, too. He has always had the power to modulate his game as circumstances dictate, and he did it again in Game 4, making sure that forwards Scottie Pippen (24 points) and Toni Kukoc (13 points, nine assists, seven rebounds) and guard B.J. Armstrong (18 points) were off and scoring before he began to look at the basket himself.
Jordan finished with 26 points, seven rebounds and four steals, and the Bulls finished with their most balanced effort of the series. "We found out that we're at our best when we move the ball and everyone is involved," said Wennington afterward. "I think that's been the biggest lesson of the four games, and it's something we'll take into the rest of the series."
But Chicago has also discovered that Orlando is no longer a playoff greenhorn. That hard-earned Game 3 win on the road put to rest the notion that the Magic is all flash and no substance and that under postseason pressure, it can be expected to crumble like a burnt cookie. "People didn't think we could take it," said Orlando guard Brian Shaw after Game 4. "They didn't think we could handle the road and the playoffs and Michael Jordan all put together, but we came here, won one game and almost won another one. People won't really believe in us until we win the championship, but we believe in ourselves, and that's more important."
The Magic had to be equally encouraged by its ability to play the Bulls to a standstill without a dominating performance from either of its two stars, O'Neal and point guard Anfernee Hardaway. Both had their moments, especially O'Neal, whose free throw shooting was a revelation. He made 71.4% (40 of 56) compared with 53.3% in the regular season. He also had a 20-point first half in Game 3 and became more effective on offense when he began moving to the basket before a second defender could arrive. "My mother, my grandmother, everybody told me to make quicker moves to the basket," he said after finishing with 28 points in the third game. But neither O'Neal nor Hardaway was as consistent through the first four games of the series as Orlando forward Horace Grant, the ex-Bull who made his former teammates pay for leaving him open while they double-teamed O'Neal. Grant nailed one jump shot after another en route to averaging 19.5 points and 12.3 rebounds through the first four games. "We're making him score, and he's doing it," said Chicago coach Phil Jackson after Game 4.
Grant, who joined Orlando as a free agent last summer amid charges and countercharges of bad faith in negotiations with the Bulls, was careful not to gloat. He gave the impression that the time for that would come later. Asked if he would say there was any special incentive in playing against Chicago, Grant smiled broadly and said, "Not yet."
Although O'Neal was shackled by the Bulls' three centers at times and by foul trouble at others, he and Jordan still lived up to their billing, leading their respective teams in scoring average over the first four games. Both players, however, had their share of fourth-quarter difficulties—Jordan committed key turnovers and O'Neal had a hard time getting the ball down the stretch.