It is the first of what will be many exchanges between Jordan and Smith during this series. "A little late on that one, weren't you?" Jordan says after making a jump shot over Smith. "Is that all you got?" Smith asks on the way downcourt after a Jordan miss. On one of Jordan's highlight videos, he is seen sneaking up behind an opposing player and tickling his fingertips during a break in the action. The player is Smith. "I enjoy playing against Steve," says Jordan. "We have the same kind of personality out on the court. We like to exchange a few words out there, but we're careful not to cross the line."
Jordan sometimes seduces his opponents into forgetting how dangerous he is by engaging them in conversation. This is what New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was referring to in January when he called Jordan a con man—and unwisely incurred his wrath. "I definitely wouldn't say that about him," Smith says, "but I would say you have to always keep in mind that he's looking for a way to take advantage of you."
On this night Jordan finds little to take advantage of early. Smith handles him without much double-team help, partly because it seems that Jordan is floating around the edges of the game, waiting to see what shape it takes before he fully involves himself. At halftime Jordan has only 13 points, but in the third quarter he decides it's time: He hits two free throws, then scrapes Smith off a screen and makes a three-pointer. Later in the quarter he gets away from Smith for a fast-break dunk, one of two for the period. He is on one of his rolls, and the Hawks are just hoping to ride it out. By the time the quarter ends Jordan has scored 20 points in the period, and a 50-39 Atlanta halftime lead has become a 77-70 advantage for the Bulls.
Jordan is quiet again in the fourth quarter, but Chicago forward Scottie Pippen hits a three-pointer with 43.9 seconds to give the Bulls a 100-97 win and a 1-0 lead in the series. "I stayed in front of him for three quarters," Smith says afterward of Jordan, who nevertheless finished with 34 points. "But in the third quarter he got that look in his eye. He started making his move to the basket right away, and he had no pattern. He went left, he went right. He drove, he pulled up. When he gets like that, you just have to do your best and hope he eventually cools off. I'll go home and think about the good things I did against him more than the problems I had. But most of all, I'll think about Game 2."
THURSDAY, MAY 8
Smith sits in the visitors' locker room at the United Center before Game 2, ignoring the tape of Game 1 that is playing across the room. He calls out to the reporters who are leaving the room, having completed their pregame interviews. "I want to see you guys come rushing back in here after we win," he says.
One night of guarding Jordan hasn't shaken his confidence. "I can't afford to get frustrated, not against him," Smith says. "He reads you. If he sees you get down, drop your head, he'll try to crush you. You can't let yourself get frustrated, because it will show, and then he's got you."
There's a theory that Jordan's favorite shooting spot is on the right wing facing the basket. Smith and the Hawks don't subscribe to that, and as Game 2 starts Jordan seems intent on proving that he has no favorite place on the court. He takes Smith to the right wing twice for turnaround jumpers, then takes him to the left side for another basket. Smith will see much of Jordan's repertoire tonight. He will be reminded of one attribute of Jordan's that is often overlooked—his speed—when Jordan grabs a rebound while Smith is down on the baseline and goes the length of the court for a bucket before Smith can chase him down. Jordan will also show off a few veteran tricks, including one, in the third quarter, when he grabs Smith's shirt and pulls him one way while he goes the other for an alley-oop pass and a dunk.
Jordan is giving the Hawks a difficult time, but he has trouble of his own. He's guarding Atlanta's Mookie Blaylock, exactly the kind of small, quick guard he detests covering, and Blaylock is on his way to scoring 26 points, including eight three-pointers. Jordan not only has to chase Blaylock but also fill the rebounding void left by Chicago forward Dennis Rodman, who does not seem to be of sound mind or body tonight. Rodman, hampered by a knee strain, finishes with just five rebounds and earns his nightly technical, so Jordan picks up the slack with 16 rebounds. But all this extra work leaves him too tired to perform his typical late-game magic. He misses a three-pointer with Smith standing flat-footed at the top of the key and later runs Smith off a pick and frees himself for a layup, which he misses. He finishes with 27 points, as does Smith, on 12-of-29 shooting, and the Hawks tie the series with a 103-95 win.
The Hawks' plan of sending a big man at Jordan seems to have helped, but fatigue appears to have been Jordan's biggest obstacle on this night. "He just had to do too much tonight." Smith says afterward. "He was trying to take over in the fourth quarter, you could see it in his eyes. I tried to make him go over me, not around me, and he just missed some shots. He's human, even though sometimes he makes you wonder."