The postgame crowd had dispersed when Dennis Rodman walked back into the Chicago Bulls' locker room last Saturday evening, dressed rather conventionally except for a lovely tan chiffon scarf that dangled from his belt buckle and swayed softly as he walked. Some guys really know how to accessorize. The Bulls had just finished embarrassing the Miami Heat 98-74 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, and Rodman had been his usual disruptive self, goading what seemed to be every member of the Heat except Burnie the mascot into an altercation. But there was one last item he wanted before leaving Miami Arena. "Where's the beer?" he asked. Told that there was none left, he muttered an expletive and headed for the door.
That brew was about the only thing the Bulls had wanted to that point in the postseason that was denied them. They had been sloppy enough to give the Washington Bullets, the Atlanta Hawks and the Heat false hope in each of their first three playoff series, but they had squashed that hope every time by playing like champions when they had to, which is why their playoff record was 10-2 after Miami staved off elimination in Monday's Game 4 with an 87-80 victory. (The fifth game was scheduled for Chicago on Wednesday.) Early in the postseason Chicago had performed just well enough to survive, but the way it played in the first three games against the Heat served frightening notice to the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets, who at week's end were tied 2-2 in their battle to determine the Western Conference representative in the Finals (following story): The Bulls seemed primed to play even better in the next round.
"It hasn't all come together yet, but it's getting there," Michael Jordan said after the Bulls limited the Heat to 21-of-55 (38.2%) shooting in Game 3. "We've been building toward a certain level of play throughout the playoffs, and it feels like maybe we're about to reach that level."
Defensively, Chicago was already at its peak, as the Heat could attest. During their three wins against Miami, the Bulls held the Heat to 19 or fewer points in eight of the 12 quarters and to an average of 73 points per game, stifling Miami in much the same way that they did the Orlando Magic in the conference finals last season. However, what should be of particular concern to Chicago's next opponent is how the Bulls went about shackling the Heat. One of Chicago's most overlooked strengths is its ability to take away an opponent's top offensive threat. Against Miami the Bulls improved on that by shutting down two threats, point guard Tim Hardaway and center Alonzo Mourning. Hardaway, who had scored 19.3 points a game in the Heat's playoff wins over the Magic and the New York Knicks, averaged a mere 11.3 points and Mourning (19.8 points a game in the regular season) 15.7 in the first three games of the series against Chicago. Both hit their low points, figuratively and literally, in the disastrous Game 3. Hardaway missed seven of his nine shots and scored only six points, and Mourning inexplicably took just four shots, making only one, and finished with 12 points. "They just seem to be in a bit of a slump," said Chicago center Luc Longley after the Bulls' 24-point victory, "but we might have a little bit to do with that."
Chicago had a great deal to do with that. Playing defense against the Heat's tandem may turn out to have been a good warmup if in the Finals the Bulls face Utah's inside-outside duo of power forward Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton. A key to defusing the explosive Hardaway was Chicago's ability to close off one of his favorite maneuvers, the pick-and-roll. The Bulls sent a second defender to "jump" the play, meaning the second man stepped out as Hardaway came off the pick and forced him to dribble away from the basket, giving Hardaway's defender, usually guard Ron Harper, time to recover from being picked.
Should Chicago face Utah, the test will be whether the Bulls can deal with the Stockton-Malone pick-and-roll as successfully, because the Jazz pair is certainly the best in the NBA at the play and possibly the best in league history. Where Hardaway is a scorer, Stockton is a play-maker, drawing defenders to him and then finding the open man, which Mourning sees as the best way to attack the Chicago defense. "Taking it to the basket puts pressure on their defense," he said following Game 3. "It forces them to commit."
But Mourning may not be the best person to give advice on how to beat the Bulls' defense. He certainly couldn't figure out a way to do it in Game 3, when Longley and backup center Brian Williams did a masterly job of taking him out of the Heat attack. Some of what Chicago's big men did against Mourning would be useful against Malone, particularly the way they found Mourning quickly when Miami got possession of the ball, picked him up in the backcourt and thereby made it difficult for him to get to his favorite positions on the floor. They also tried to keep Mourning from going to his left, which he much prefers to going right. But Malone is more adept at driving either way, and he is a better passer when double-teamed than Mourning is. The Rockets' two main low-post threats, center Hakeem Olajuwon and forward Charles Barkley, are also far more versatile offensively than any big man the Bulls faced in the series against Miami.
Chicago's first defensive priority against Utah would almost certainly be containing Stockton, and just as Harper was the key figure in slowing Hardaway, he would be chiefly responsible for Stockton. Harper is 33 and likes to sound 83. "I can't guard Hardaway," he said after limiting him to 13 points on 4-of-14 shooting in Game 1, an 84-77 Bulls win. "I have slow feet, my knees hurt, and I have a bad back." But the 6'6" Harper always seems to find the fountain of youth in the playoffs, which serves him particularly well when defending against smaller, quicker guards. "He has long arms that can really make it tough for smaller guards to see around him," says 6'3" Chicago guard Steve Kerr. "I know. I have to do it in practice."
Houston would be another matter. With Olajuwon and Barkley, the Rockets have more firepower up front than the Jazz does, which makes for a more difficult matchup for the Bulls, whose biggest weakness is their interior defense. Houston often uses that inside game to set up its outside game, with its big men drawing double teams and sending the ball out to a squadron of three-point bombers—guards Clyde Drexler and Matt Maloney, swing-man Mario Elie and guard Eddie Johnson.
That part of the Rockets' game, however, plays right into Chicago's strength. "They are so good at double-teaming and then getting back to their man," says Mourning, "that sometimes you'd swear they must have seven men on the court." Five players are plenty when two of them are Jordan and forward Scottie Pippen. In the Miami series Jordan and Pippen proved again that they are unparalleled in their ability to cover huge areas of the floor. In the way that they double-team near the basket and then race to the perimeter to find their man when the ball is passed back out, they are like center-fielders with great range or cornerbacks with the ability to close rapidly on the ball. "They're like amoebas," Heat coach Pat Riley said after Game 3, referring to the elasticity Jordan and Pippen demonstrated on defense. "They cut off angles, they jam the outlet pass, they contest so many shots that even when they don't contest one, the shooter tends to rush his shot because he's expecting that hand in his face."