After the Chicago Bull win the NBA championship—and coming off Game 1 of the Finals, could there have been anyone outside the state of Utah who had not recognized how likely that is?—after Michael Jordan hugs the trophy as if it were a newborn and then lights up a stogie, after the last strains of Sweet Home Chicago the down, after a large percentage of the Bulls' faithful meets a few days later at Grant Park for the celebration that is nearly as fixed an annual holiday in Chicago as the Fourth of July, the Bulls will head back to their practice facility and try to figure out what on earth has gone wrong with their game.
Well, actually, they won't, but no one would blame them if they did. Instead of cruising to a championship as it did last year, Chicago is staggering toward one, and that is either further proof that the Bulls are invincible even at less than full strength or the sign of a dynasty entering its twilight. Their 84-82 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 1 on Sunday was memorable for yet another game-winning shot at the buzzer by Jordan and an even more heroic performance by forward Scottie Pippen (page 38), who was the best player on the floor despite a painful soft tissue injury to his left foot. Nevertheless, the Bulls played as they have throughout the postseason—far short of peak efficiency, particularly on offense, where they were operating mostly on two cylinders named Jordan and Pippen. Chicago had a playoff record of 12-2 heading into Game 2 on Wednesday night at the United Center, but the Bulls had won most of those games by playing well for a half, a quarter or sometimes even just a few minutes. "We haven't really played a solid 48 minutes during the entire playoffs," Pippen said after Game 1. "We'd like to have balanced scoring and a fluid offense, but at this stage of the season you can't wail for it to happen."
It certainly didn't happen on Sunday, when Jordan scored 31 points, Pippen had 27 and none of the other Chicago players contributed more than six. But as hard as the Bulls try to furrow their brows and convey the proper measure of concern to the media, they seem fairly secure in the belief that they can win a championship without playing their best basketball. "We're concerned,' Chicago forward-center Brian Williams said after Game 1. "Really we are. You can't win a championship playing the way we're playing. At least you shouldn't. Should you?"
The Bulls' triangle offense at times has looked more like a circle, as in zero. (Maybe that's why normally placid, 75-year-old assistant coach Tex Winter, the inventor of the triangle, picked up an uncharacteristic technical foul for berating referee Bill Oakes on Sunday.) In fact, there were lengthy stretches of Game 1 when the only decent shots the Bulls were getting were the ones Jordan was creating for himself. "I really thought we were going to lose this game," Chicago forward Jud Buechler said afterward. "We had no emotion, no fire. There wasn't even much emotion among the guys on the bench. It was almost like a regular-season game." That suggests that boredom may be as big an obstacle to the Bulls, who are going for their fifth championship in seven years, as the Jazz is. "That same hunger, that same enthusiasm is there for me," says Jordan, "but I can't speak for everyone."
Or maybe the dauntless presence of Jordan—who is the ultimate safety net—contributes to the listless play around him. "Do I expect him to always hit the game-winner at the buzzer? No," says Chicago coach Phil Jackson. "I'm not quite that confident." But Jordan has rescued his teammates so many times that they can be forgiven if they occasionally find themselves waiting for him to compensate for their mistakes. Consider Williams's description of the Bulls' strategy on the final possession of Game 1, with the score tied at 82 and 7.5 seconds left: "Give the ball to Mike and get out of the way. That's basically the wisdom for the day." Buechler, who was also in the game for the final play, said, "I pretty much left the building. [Teammate] Steve Kerr and I were standing next to each other on the other side of the court, as far away from Mike as we could get. We just wanted to isolate him and let him make something happen."
After the ball was passed to Jordan beyond the top of the three-point circle, he moved left and dribbled to within 18 feet of the basket, then went straight up and drained the shot. "It was a play with a lot of options," said Jordan. "But Phil knew that once I got the ball, the options were limited. I was the option."
Chicago was not supposed to be able to beat Utah the same way it handled the Washington Bullets, the Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat on the way to the Finals, slogging its way on offense through most of the game and then cranking up its defense to create chaos at crunch time. Late in the fourth quarter the Bulls forced the normally unflappable John Stockton, Utah's point guard, into turnovers on consecutive possessions and got a huge break with 9.2 seconds left when Jazz power forward and 1996-97 league MVP Karl Malone missed a pair of free throws that would have broken the tie. That set the stage for Jordan's winning jumper, which he drilled despite the valiant defense of small forward Bryon Russell. It took Malone 82 games to edge Jordan for the Most Valuable Player award; it took Jordan 7.5 seconds to provide a compelling rebuttal.
Until the final moments Malone and the Jazz seemed poised to take the early advantage in the series, just as the 6'9", 256-pound Malone had shrugged off his highly anticipated confrontation with Chicago power forward Dennis Rodman. The Bulls used bigger defenders, such as Williams and center Luc Longley, on Malone much of the game, but when Rodman did guard him, Malone made it clear that Rodman, at 6'8" and 220 pounds, had neither the size nor the strength to handle him for very long. Indeed, Malone had a team-high 23 points and even outrebounded Rodman 15-12.
Perhaps most important, Malone had little trouble maintaining his composure against the usually antagonistic Rodman. It seemed for most of the game that the Malone-Rodman matchup was going to be symbolic of the series: Rodman had finally met his emotional and physical match in Malone, and in the Jazz, the Bulls had finally run into a team they could not defeat at will.
Malone has long been one of the few opposing forwards Rodman has difficulty rattling, which may be because they knew each other long before the Mailman and the Worm were household names, before one became an MVP and the other went MTV. Ten years ago Malone and Rodman played on the same Dallas summer-league team. Malone had just finished his second season with Utah and Rodman his first in the NBA (with the Detroit Pistons), and they would often drive to games together, sometimes spending hours in the car as they sped through the Texas heat across the panhandle into Oklahoma. The thing that Malone recalls most about Rodman is that he didn't stand out—no extensive body art, no Day-Glo hair. "The thing I remember is how quiet he was," Malone says. "We would go for miles, and he wouldn't say a word."