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Gored by The Bulls
Phil Taylor
June 03, 1996
Orlando not only got swept by Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals but also found itself on the horns of a dilemma about its future
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June 03, 1996

Gored By The Bulls

Orlando not only got swept by Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals but also found itself on the horns of a dilemma about its future

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Orlando Magic forward Dennis Scott looked at the approaching media horde after practice last Friday and bellowed a warning to his teammates. "Look out," he shouted. "Here come the vultures." He was applying that word to the wrong group, which wasn't surprising, because one of Orlando's biggest shortcomings last week in the Eastern Conference finals was that the normally sweet-shooting Scott's aim was very rarely true. The vultures preying on the Magic didn't carry notebooks or microphones, they wore red and black, and they were methodically picking Orlando's carcass clean. The Chicago Bulls had not only stripped the Magic of the basketball in a number of memorable defensive sequences, they had also torn away at Orlando's reputation as a dynasty in the making. The Bulls were in such complete control that Scott's comment was on target in at least one way: Even though at the time the Magic was trailing only 2-0 in the best-of-seven series, Orlando was dead meat.

And on Monday, Chicago, sparked by guard Michael Jordan's 45 points, made sure the Magic stayed that way by completing a four-game sweep with a 106-101 victory at the O-rena. In fact, Scott's nickname, 3-D, could have served as a moniker for this series, with the D standing for decimated, which described the Magic; dominant, which described the Bulls' performance; and dud, which neatly described what had become of the most highly anticipated playoff matchup of 1996. The series so lacked drama that, after Chicago held Orlando to 10 fourth-quarter points in its 86-67 victory in Saturday's Game 3, the only question left was whether the Magic would be eliminated before all the members of center Shaquille O'Neal and point guard Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway's supporting cast were wearing supporting casts. Power forward Horace Grant had one on his left arm, thanks to the hyper-extended elbow he suffered in Game 1 that sidelined him for the rest of the series, and guard Nick Anderson left the O-rena after Game 3 with one on his right wrist, badly sprained in a fourth-quarter fall.

Jon Koncak, who took Grant's place in the starting lineup, played in Game 3 after a cortisone shot helped dull the pain in his injured left knee—if only temporarily. "I'm going to have a wonderful time getting out of bed tomorrow morning," he said after the game. Koncak wasn't the only one for whom rising from the sack was a dismal experience. Guard Brian Shaw was scratched for Game 3 when he woke up the day of the game with severe neck spasms. "When things like that happen," Hardaway said, "you can't help thinking that maybe it wasn't meant to be."

It got so bad for the Magic that even Chicago couldn't help but feel a touch of sympathy. "When I shook hands with [ Orlando coach] Brian Hill before the game, I asked him what next could go wrong with his basketball team," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said after Game 3. "I guess he found out today." And when asked to assess the disheartened Magic's performance, most of the Chicago players tried to be tactful, particularly after their Game 3 victory in which they held Orlando to the second-fewest points in playoff history. "It looks like they don't quite have a clear idea of exactly how they want to attack us," said Jordan, the leader of the Bulls' ravenous defense. "I wouldn't say we've broken their spirit, but you can see a little bit of frustration from Shaq and Penny," forward Scottie Pippen said. Not surprisingly, Chicago's other starting forward, Dennis Rodman, was more blunt. "It's like their sink is stopped up or something," he said in describing Orlando's offense after Game 3. "I think they need some liquid Drano."

The Magic now faces an off-season that could be even more devastating than this series against Chicago was. O'Neal and Grant become free agents on July 1, and Orlando will have to break the bank to keep them both. O'Neal, in particular, may be especially hard-nosed in negotiations because of the Los Angeles Lakers' interest in him. The Lakers will not be able to match the monetary offer the Magic can make to O'Neal (who earned $5.7 million this season), because Orlando is not bound by the salary cap in re-signing its own free agent. Conversely, Orlando will not be able to match the obvious benefits that L.A. would provide for Shaq's burgeoning careers as an actor and as a rapper. O'Neal's only public comments have indicated a desire to stay with the Magic, and many of those close to him believe he is leaning toward re-signing with Orlando.

Then there is the beleaguered Hill, for whom nothing has gone right lately. After the loss in Game 3, he was scheduled to meet the media in the interview room after Jackson. But when he saw that Jordan, who was unaware of the planned order, had taken the podium after Jackson, Hill walked off and declined to go into the interview room at all. Orlando front-office sources said on Saturday that there was no truth to the rumor that the Magic had contacted University of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino and asked him not to agree to a deal with the New Jersey Nets until the Magic officials were free to negotiate with him after the playoffs. And on Sunday, Magic general manager John Gabriel declared, " Brian Hill has done a great job coaching this team. His job is safe." Nevertheless, rumors persisted that Hill's tenure was in jeopardy. Being swept in the playoffs three consecutive years—the Magic also suffered sweeps by the Indiana Pacers in the first round in 1994 and by the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals in '95—is not good for any coach's job security, even one who was handcuffed by his team's injuries, as Hill was against the Bulls. Could the Orlando dynasty be crumbling before it ever takes shape? "Right now there are a lot of unanswered questions about this team," Scott acknowledged after Game 3.

One question the Magic should ask itself is whether it is as passionate about winning a title as a championship team must be. Even given the Magic's injuries, the ease with which Chicago handled Orlando solidified the Magic's reputation as a team that is far more flash than substance. All the Little Pennys and Shaq Fus don't add up to a single championship ring.

The Magic needs look only as far as Jordan to see the passion it lacks. The Bulls' astonishing 1995-96 record—72-10 in the regular season and 11-1 in the postseason through Monday—has been largely the result of Jordan's drive to erase the humbling memory of being eliminated by Orlando in the playoffs last season, the only playoff series Jordan has lost since '90. As he coolly and confidently led Chicago to its Game 3 win—with considerable help from Pippen, who broke out of a slump with 11-of-14 shooting and 27 points—the image of Jordan being embarrassed by Anderson's steal in the final moments of the Magic's Game 1 win last year on the same floor seemed like ancient history. The Bulls may not have seen the real Magic in this series, but, then, the Magic did not see the real Jordan last year.

The real Jordan led the second-half defensive charge in Game 2 that cut an 18-point Magic lead to two in six minutes and wiped out any chance that Orlando might have had of making the series competitive. Chicago put on a clinic on pressure defense by, for example, forcing Magic players other than Hardaway to handle, and in many cases mishandle, the ball. That pressure allowed the Bulls to recover for a 93-88 win following their 121-83 blowout victory in Game 1. "The frustrating thing is that they've beaten us three different ways," Koncak said after Game 3. "They've kicked our butts from the opening tip, they've wiped out a big lead, and they've taken over in the fourth quarter. That gets inside your head a little bit."

Rodman was more concerned with getting under the Magic's skin, especially O'Neal's. He and Shaq had a running battle on and off the court, with O'Neal plainly annoyed at suggestions that Rodman was guarding him well—and just as irritated at the thought that Rodman might be approaching his prominence as a product pitchman. "He's a gimmick," O'Neal said after Game 1. "He can't match me on or off the court." Knowing that he was getting to O'Neal only encouraged the Worm, and he continued to apply the needle. "He'll be a great player...someday," Rodman said after Game 3. "He can talk all the trash he wants to, but if he wants to go home with a trophy, he better learn how to win and how to get his game together. Right now his game is totally off."

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