SI Vault
 
Winded City
Phil Taylor
June 08, 1998
Spent after fending off the Pacers, Michael Jordan and the Bulls must dig even deeper in the Finals to beat the rested and ready Jazz
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 08, 1998

Winded City

Spent after fending off the Pacers, Michael Jordan and the Bulls must dig even deeper in the Finals to beat the rested and ready Jazz

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2

The Bulls could be particularly hurt by their lack of options up front, where Malone is a more dangerous low-post scoring threat than anyone the Pacers had to offer. In the Finals last season, Chicago center Luc Longley and forward Dennis Rodman had their hands full against Malone, and both are coming off lackluster performances against Indiana. Smits made 14 of 19 shots in the final two games of the series, most of them against Longley. Rodman, who wasn't thrilled to serve as a sixth man, was strangely subdued throughout the series, averaging only 9.9 rebounds compared with his league-leading 15.0 during the regular season. "We're not that concerned," Jackson said after Game 7. "Dennis has been struggling coming off the bench. He'll have a different role in this next series. It will be his turn to shine."

The Bulls need a rejuvenated Rodman because they don't have the insurance policy for him that they had last year, when 6'11" Brian Williams was instrumental in their championship run. A free agent after last season, Williams signed with the Detroit Pistons. Also, in February the Bulls traded 6'8" power forward Jason Caffey to the Golden State Warriors for forward David Vaughn, whom they later waived. The result is, if Longley and Rodman can't handle Malone, or if they get into foul difficulties, the Bulls are in deep trouble. "I told Toni that I was going to put him on Malone," Jackson said of the slender 6'11" Kukoc, who's not known for his rugged defense. "But that was just sadistic humor on my part."

Of course, Chicago still has the ultimate weapon in Jordan, who will face a rotation of defenders, including Hornacek, Anderson and likely stalling small forward Bryon Russell. The Bulls also have a withering defense, which essentially won Game 7 against Indiana by shutting down the Pacers in the fourth quarter. Indiana scored only 18 points in the period—none by offensive miracle worker Reggie Miller, whom Jordan limited to one shot. "Our defense is the thing that has never really failed us," said Pippen, whose shackling of Pacers point guard Mark Jackson was pivotal in the Bulls' victories. "If we play that kind of defense against Utah, I think we'll be all right."

Turning up the defense to take games away in the fourth quarter has become Chicago's trademark, but if any team seems capable of withstanding that defensive pressure, it is Utah. With Stockton at the controls of the league's most efficient offense, the Jazz will not be easily rattled. "What makes them so great is that they get a good shot virtually every time down the floor," says Bulls guard Steve Kerr. "If you watch us play, you see that's not the case. Too often, we end up with Michael or Scottie having to create something with the shot clock running down. Our offense has to be more precise, because we know that theirs will be."

The 6'7" Pippen doesn't expect to guard the 6'1" Stockton in the Finals because the Utah point guard is quicker and doesn't try to score in the low post the way Mark Jackson does. The key task of controlling Stockton will fall to 6'6" guard Ron Harper, who in past playoff series has made life difficult for point guards Gary Payton (Seattle SuperSonics), Rod Strickland (Washington Wizards) and Tim Hardaway (Miami Heat).

Utah can expect Harper to be the same subtle but unyielding force that he was against the Pacers. While Jordan and Pip-pen are routinely spectacular and Rodman grabs rebounds and attention, Harper fills in all the cracks. He is often asked to shut down the opponent's best backcourt scorer and to take advantage of a defense that slacks off him, as he did with 15 points against the Pacers in Chicago's 85-79 win in Game 1. "Ron is the unsung hero of this team," says Pippen, Harper's closest friend on the Bulls.

Harper's locker-room contribution is often underestimated because the Bulls' demeanor is generally thought to be drawn from their four most prominent personalities. Jackson is the spiritual one, Jordan is the passionate one, Pippen is the coolly detached one and Rodman is the wild one. But Harper, the lighthearted one, is a behind-the-scenes leader.

It was Harper, 34, who joked about secretly attending the Indianapolis 500 the day after the 107-105 loss to the Pacers in Game 3, despite Jackson's orders for the players to stay away from the race. "We should all sneak over there," Harper said. "We'd probably get there and find Phil sitting in a luxury box." It was his way of saying that he wasn't shaken by the defeat, and the rest of the team shouldn't be, either. Harper is probably the most popular player among his teammates, the bridge between the stars and the supporting cast. He has been accepted into Jordan's inner circle—he, Pippen and Jordan work out together at Jordan's home several times a week—but the role players still consider him one of them. "Ron is the guy who helps keep everybody loose," says Jackson. "But at the same time he's respected for his dependability. He's willing to do some of the thankless tasks on this team."

It's easy to get the impression that Harper doesn't take anything seriously, but he does. He closely studied tapes of Miller for days before the Pacers series, and it was in one of his sessions with Jordan and Pippen that the plan for Pippen to defend Mark Jackson was hatched. "When these start to go," he said after Game 3, pointing to his legs, "you have to start using this." He pointed to his head. Harper will also try to use his arms against Stockton. One of the keys to Chicago's defense is the wingspans of perimeter defenders Harper, Jordan and Pippen, who will try to make the passing angles difficult for Stockton.

As for Utah, Malone has to be a dominant force inside, the Jazz has to avoid making the turnovers that feed the Bulls' offense, and the Utah defenders must be prepared to help the poor soul who guards Jordan. In the end that last task may be the most important for Utah. The Bulls' history suggests Jordan will find a way to bring another championship to Chicago, but they may have finally run into the team to whom that history means nothing. Unless the Bulls can somehow win the series in five games or less—a long shot—the championship will be won in the Delta Center, and it is hard to imagine the Jazz allowing even Jordan to walk away a winner there. The feeling here is that Utah's players are ready to make some history of their own, and that they will do so in seven games.

1 2