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Pressure Cooker
Phil Taylor
June 10, 1996
In the Finals the Sonics will find that no team turns up the heat on defense the way the Bulls do
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June 10, 1996

Pressure Cooker

In the Finals the Sonics will find that no team turns up the heat on defense the way the Bulls do

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By now the Chicago Bulls' status as the most glamorous team in all of sports should be unquestioned. Dennis Rodman is a best-selling author—and by the way, is there any term in American culture that has been more devalued?—who, when he slips into something slinky and applies his mascara and lipstick just so, looks less like a power forward than he does like Diana Ross on steroids. Michael Jordan has such star power that film critic and fervent Bulls fan Gene Siskel actually reviews his highlight videos (he gives Jordan's latest a thumbs-up). The glitz even rubs off on the Bulls' lesser lights. Last week third-string center John Salley was surrounded by reporters who questioned him about his acting technique in the new Whoopi Goldberg movie, Eddie, as if Salley were the young Brando discussing Streetcar.

It is easy in this atmosphere to forget why the Bulls (who won a record 72 games in the regular season) are so clearly the best team in the league and could make short work of the Seattle SuperSonics in the NBA Finals that were scheduled to begin on Wednesday in Chicago. As hyped and hip as the Bulls may be, they are at their core an old-fashioned team whose success is built on that most basic and traditional of concepts: unyielding defense. No one knows this better than the Bulls themselves, which may be why guard Ron Harper smiled slyly when he was asked during the Eastern Conference finals against the Orlando Magic about Chicago's defensive success. "Defense," he said, "is our little secret."

Not exactly—Chicago did place three players ( Jordan, Rodman and forward Scottie Pippen) on the NBA All-Defensive squad—but the Bulls' defensive prowess often gets short shrift because of their other, more spectacular attributes. It is not well known, for instance, that Chicago tied for second in the league in fewest points allowed (92.9 per game) during the regular season. They trailed the Cleveland Cavaliers (88.5), who really shouldn't count because their defense consisted largely of slowing the game to the pace of a tortoise with a pulled hamstring. But in the playoffs the Bulls' defense has come out of the closet. Entering the Finals they had allowed a measly 85.7 points per game in their 12 postseason games, and they had given up more than 100 points only twice. It took overtime to bring one such lapse, a 102-99 Eastern Conference semifinal victory by the New York Knicks in Chicago's only loss of the playoffs. "Our offensive execution has been up and down in the postseason," says Jordan. "Our shooting has been up and down. But our defense has never deserted us."

Of course, the Bulls will find that attacking the Seattle defense game after game is not a Sunday stroll either. (The teams split their two regular-season meetings, each winning at home.) The Sonics, led by their point guard, Defensive Player of the Year Gary Payton, were first in the league in turnovers forced (18.5 per game) and are better known for their swarming, trapping defense than Chicago is. But heading into the Finals, the best defense in the postseason has belonged to Chicago. The most visible sign of the Bulls' dominance is how they have been able to turn up the pressure seemingly at will, as if they flipped some invisible switch from SIMMER to BOIL. When New York proved pesky in the first two playoff games against the Bulls, Chicago smothered the Knicks in the fourth quarters of both games. In Game 3 of the conference finals, the Bulls limited the high-scoring Magic to 10 points in the final period of an 86-67 victory. And the way Chicago pressured poor Orlando into 12 second-half turnovers to wipe out an 18-point third-quarter deficit in Game 2 of that series, a 93-88 Bulls win, was almost cruel.

"Their defense is what they use to cut your heart out," says Seattle scout Brendan Malone, who coached the Toronto Raptors this season before signing on with the Sonics for the playoffs. "That's what they did to Orlando, and it's what they're going to try to do to us. Jordan can go for 40 or 50 points on you, but the place they make their statement is on defense."

Most teams emphasize constant movement on offense; the Bulls stress it just as much on defense. One of Chicago assistant coach Jim Cleamons's duties is to keep track of every time a Bulls defender touches the ball, whether it is a steal, blocked shot, deflected pass or just a ball knocked out-of-bounds. "It doesn't matter whether there's a change of possession or not," says Cleamons, who will take over as the Dallas Mavericks' new coach when the Finals end. "We just want to keep track of every defensive touch because it's a good barometer. It gives us an idea of whether we're as active and alert on defense as we need to be." Chicago coach Phil Jackson likes to see his team with a minimum of about 12 defensive touches per half. The Bulls had only six in the sluggish first half of Game 2 against Orlando, and they trailed 53-38. Cleamons passed the stat on to Jackson, who relayed it to his team at half-time, and in the Bulls' furious second-half defensive stand, they applied full-court pressure and had 16 defensive touches in 18 minutes. It was no coincidence that they rallied for the victory.

Having three such skilled and versatile defenders as Jordan, Pippen and Rodman allows Chicago to take an approach unlike any of the other top defensive teams in the league. The Bulls do not bump and grind teams out of their offense the way the Knicks do; they don't have to slow the game and limit possessions the way the Cavaliers do; and though they can double-team and trap like the Sonics, they usually don't choose to. The Bulls can apply more straight-up pressure than any other team in the league. " Scottie Pippen," says Magic point guard Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, "can be a full-court press all by himself."

Add the newly defensive-minded Harper to the mix and the Bulls have four players between 6'6" and 6'8" who can each defend at least three positions. Six-foot-eight forward Rodman can guard anyone from a small forward to a center; the 6'7" Pippen can defend point guards, power forwards and everyone in between. This is why the Bulls always seem to have an answer for any potential matchup problem. At 6'7", Hardaway presents headaches for most teams at point guard. The Bulls simply threw Pippen at him and had Harper (6'6") defend small forward Dennis Scott. Sonics small forward Detlef Schrempf, 6'10", is the kind of player whose height and agility would make him a difficult matchup for many teams, but in the Finals, Jackson can cover him with Rodman, Pippen or 6'11" sixth man Toni Kukoc. "We have the kind of personnel that allows us to dictate to an offense at times, rather than the other way around," Cleamons says.

The Bulls have the rare defense that works from the outside in. Guard Jordan, who's 6'6", and Pippen and Harper form a long-armed outer shell protecting an interior that even with Rodman is vulnerable. "They're long," Miami Heat point guard Tim Hardaway said wearily after Game 1 of Miami's first-round series against Chicago. "They're just...long." One of the reasons centers Luc Longley and Bill Wennington haven't been overwhelmed by the three imposing pivotman they have faced in the postseason—Miami's Alonzo Mourning, New York's Patrick Ewing and Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal—is that the Bulls harassed opposing guards enough to make it difficult for them to deliver the ball inside. "We're not afraid to come up the floor and extend our defense," says Bulls assistant coach John Paxson, "because we've got guys who are quick enough and athletic enough to do it."

Their quickness and instincts make the Bulls' perimeter players perhaps the best in the league at dropping down to double-team in the low post and recovering in time to annoy an outside shooter. Pippen and Jordan, in particular, are adept at anticipating the pass out of the low post. There were times in the Orlando series when they double-teamed O'Neal in the post and were moving back out toward the perimeter a split second before the ball was. "They kind of collapse in and come out," says Malone.

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