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Phil Taylor
June 17, 1996
The Sonics were overwhelmed by a relentless Bulls attack that put Chicago on the cusp of another NBA championship
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June 17, 1996


The Sonics were overwhelmed by a relentless Bulls attack that put Chicago on the cusp of another NBA championship

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Of all the lasting images from these NBA Finals—Michael Jordan's eyes as he sensed the kill, somehow passionately hot and cruelly cold at the same time; talkative Gary Payton's jaw tightly clenched, which for him is tantamount to a concession speech—the one that will linger longest is Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman's smile. Did it ever leave his face? He smiled sarcastically when the referees whistled him for fouls, shaking his head at their folly. He smiled warmly at a LuvaBull, one of the Chicago cheerleaders, when he landed in her lap while diving for a loose ball. He smiled mockingly at poor Frank Brickowski, the Seattle SuperSonics forward who got himself ejected twice in the first three games because he didn't realize that the real mission impossible is beating Rodman at his own mind game. Seattle coach George Karl was correct when he said that Rodman was laughing at the world. Like it or not, he has earned that right. Champions get the last laugh.

But unless you are a die-hard Bulls fan or a 13-year-old who thinks a rebel and a hero are necessarily the same thing, perhaps you ask yourself: Is this what you want your champion to be? An instigating, irritating performance artist? Maybe you like your winners more stylish and dignified, like the Bulls' magnificent Jordan, but admit it: During the Finals, no matter how hard you tried, you could not keep your eyes from returning to Jordan's tattooed teammate. Love him or hate him, it seems the public cannot ignore him, which may be the real reason behind Rodman's smile—that and his proximity to his third NBA championship ring. After their 108-86 thrashing of the Sonics in Game 3 on Sunday in Seattle, he and the rest of the Bulls were not quite champs yet. But with Chicago ahead 3-0 in the best-of-seven series (Game 4 was scheduled for Wednesday at Seattle's Key Arena), the demoralized Sonics had about as much chance of coming back to win as they did of deciphering the hieroglyphics in Rodman's hair.

The inevitable championship would be the Bulls' fourth in six years. In any other season the focus would be on the fact that Jordan, who broke the Sonics' backs with 36 points in Game 3 (27 coming in the first half) and who was averaging a series-leading 31.0 points, was on the brink of taking the Bulls to the title for the fourth consecutive year that he has played a full season. Exclude last year's Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the Orlando Magic, when he was still scraping off the rust from his 17-month hiatus from the game, and the Bulls with Jordan haven't lost a playoff series in six years. What he was about to accomplish—regaining the throne he had abdicated in October '93 when he retired to pursue a baseball career—would be one of the most remarkable feats in NBA history. And as soon as everyone stopped craning his neck to see if that really was supermodel Cindy Crawford scurrying to keep up with Rodman after Game 3 (it was), maybe they would notice. Jordan was the Bulls' leading man in the Finals, but Rodman was the scene-stealer. "Dennis tends to capture the limelight sometimes because of the way he does what he does," Jordan said after Game 3. "But no one on this team cares who gets the most attention. The focus is on winning a championship, and Dennis is helping us get there."

Rodman was at his most helpful in Game 2 at Chicago's United Center, when he grabbed 20 rebounds, including 11 offensive boards to tie the Finals record, in the Bulls' 92-88 victory. He was less of a factor on the backboards in Game 3, pulling down 10 rebounds, but he did even more damage to the Sonics' psyche. Brickowski, his main foil throughout the series, was ejected with 5:46 left in the fourth quarter after committing a flagrant foul against Rodman in what was almost a replay of his ejection in Game 1, a 107-90 Bulls win. Rodman spent much of Game 3 doing what he had done during most of the series: teasing the Sonics. At one point, he had stood near the foul lane facing Brickowski, smiling at him while the Seattle fans showered him with boos. Afterward he delighted in giving the Sonics a little free advice. "They need to quit worrying about how to knock Dennis Rodman out of the game," he said, "and learn how to play basketball again. My job is to go out there, do the dirty work and get in people's heads. That's my job. I don't get paid enough to do it, but I do it."

Rodman, who came from the San Antonio Spurs in an October trade and made $2.5 million this season in the last year of the six-year contract he brought with him, might be winning himself a new deal with the Bulls. "I remember playing against him the last couple of years when he was with the Spurs," says Chicago guard Steve Kerr. "I hated him. Absolutely couldn't stand him. Now I love him. Anybody in the league would want to have him as a teammate. Except maybe [San Antonio center] David Robinson."

The Sonics wouldn't be likely to welcome the Worm into their locker room right about now, either. Before Rodman became a pain in their posteriors, they were as relaxed and self-assured as they had been in three years, having at last shed the label of underachievers by reaching the Finals after two consecutive playoff flops. The loose, confident attitude apparently extended throughout the Karl family. Karl's 13-year-old son, Coby, saw Sonics guard Nate McMillan wearing a T-shirt with an X printed over the logos of the teams that had been eliminated from the playoffs, leaving only the Seattle and the Chicago logos unmarked. Coby took two pieces of masking tape and stealthily placed an X over the Bulls' logo.

But that proved to be wishful thinking. Seattle found itself in a 3-0 hole despite outstanding performances in the first two contests in Chicago from forward Shawn Kemp, who scored 32 points in Game 1 and 29 in Game 2. The Reign Man was the Sonics' only consistent offensive threat as the Bulls held Payton to 26 points on 12-of-32 shooting in the first two games. Chicago made the Sonics guard's life difficult in much the same way that Seattle tried to contain Jordan—by sending a series of defenders at him. "They send two guys to come in and beat me up and two guys to be athletic," Payton said the day after Game 2. "They put Scottie [Pippen] on me for size. [Ron] Harper, [Randy] Brown and Jordan—when those guys guard me, they try to muscle me. And every time I go to the basket, they get a lot of help."

One of the 6'4" Payton's favorite tactics in the Sonics' earlier playoff series had been to post up and shoot over smaller point guards like the Sacramento Kings' 5'10" Tyus Edney and the Utah Jazz's 6'1" John Stockton. But the size of Chicago's guards—Jordan and Harper are both 6'6"—took that option away. "He's a great player," Harper said of Payton, "but if he thinks he can post me up, well, good luck." (Payton also missed McMillan, who played only six minutes in Game 1 and spent the next two games in street clothes because of pain caused by a bulging disk in his back.)

But the difference in Payton wasn't purely due to strategy. In the Finals he was strangely subdued, which concerned the Sonics enough that scout Brendan Ma-lone, who had been an assistant on the Detroit Pistons' championship teams of 1989 and 1990, took him aside on the off-day between Games 1 and 2. Malone told Payton about the fiery attitude Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas always took into the Finals, about how Thomas would pace the locker room like a caged animal before every game. He urged Payton to play with more of the cocky swagger the Sonics have come to know and love. Payton seemed to take the advice to heart in Game 2, going so far as to engage Jordan in several verbal confrontations, but the rest of his game didn't keep up with his mouth. With 13 points and three assists, he wasn't nearly the factor that Seattle needed him to be. Two of Seattle's best three-point shooters, guard Hersey Hawkins and forward Detlef Schrempf, weren't much help either (combined, they made only five of 21 three-point attempts in the first three games). Pay-ton had 19 points and nine assists in Game 3, but they hardly mattered after the Bulls raced out to a 34-16 first-quarter lead and were never seriously threatened.

Payton joined a long and distinguished list of players who have been stifled by the Bulls in this postseason, including center Alonzo Mourning of the Miami Heat, guard John Starks of the New York Knicks and the Magic's guard Nick Anderson and forward Dennis Scott. In fact, the case can be made that Chicago, 14-1 in the playoffs through Sunday, has had the best defensive postseason in NBA history. After Game 3, the Bulls had held their opponents under 20 points in 27 of their 60 quarters (excluding the overtime period in their only loss, 102-99 in Game 3 against the Knicks)—or 45% of the time. No NBA champion has come close to that percentage since the league went to its current four-round playoff format in 1983-84. The '90 Pistons were the closest, with 26.3% (21 times in 80 quarters).

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