Their Toughest opponents have always been the ones they could not see or touch. Age and fatigue and even the weight of their own legend are joining forces against the Chicago Bulls now, pounding away at them like waves, slowly eroding what they have built. This is no Last Dance, as coach Phil Jackson likes to call what might be this team's final run together. Last dances are wistful pleasures; this is more like the Last Lap, and the Bulls are the tiring distance runner, straining for the finish line as the footsteps behind them grow louder.
Don't be fooled by their 88-83 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals at the United Center on Sunday. The Bulls certainly weren't. The prevailing emotion in their locker room afterward was not jubilation but relief mixed with a touch of apprehension. The Bulls were hoping the Utah Jazz was more rusty than rested after having had 10 days off before Wednesday's NBA Finals opener at the Delta Center. But more likely Utah was simply emboldened by its home court advantage, its two-game regular-season sweep of the Bulls and the knowledge that it pushed Chicago to six hard-fought games before bowing in last season's Finals. The sight of Michael Jordan, 35, bent over and tugging on his shorts in the last seconds of Sunday's game, with the outcome assured, was symbolic: The Bulls were victorious but spent.
If the valiant Pacers did nothing else, they succeeded in sweeping away any air of invincibility that the five-time champion Bulls had left. "I believe they are more vulnerable," Indiana center Rik Smits said after Game 7. "They've shown it not only against us but also against other teams. They showed it today." The Bulls couldn't disagree. "Have we lost a little bit of our swagger? Probably," Jordan admitted. "It's hard when you're playing against the high standards we've set for ourselves. But we're still the champions. No one has taken anything away from us yet."
The Jazz, however, is poised to do just that. Utah poses a more difficult challenge than any Chicago has faced in its previous five Finals, because in addition to having the home court advantage, the Jazz is a deeper team and it is the first club to play the Bulls for the title twice. The mental edge Chicago has had in previous Finals—the awe factor, Jordan calls it—should be nonexistent.
Even before the Utah players knew who they would face in the Finals, they felt that last year's experience, when they reached the championship series for the first time, would make them mentally tougher this year. "Last year we got that monkey off our backs by reaching the Finals," Utah guard Jeff Hornacek says. "It was such a major hurdle, one the Jazz had never gotten over. This year it's no big celebration. We know it's just another step on the way to what we're trying to do. It's not something we haven't done before."
While the Jazz seems more prepared for the Finals than last season, the Bulls appear less so. Clearly, Chicago is not the team of even a year ago, a club that considered itself so superior to the rest of the playoff field that it was more concerned with maintaining a high level of excellence than with the challenge offered by any given opponent. Whereas the old Bulls could overcome anything—rough defensive tactics, questionable calls, hostile crowds on the road—by simply going about their business, these Bulls are testy, perhaps because they sense their own vulnerability. They have to play the game the same way as everyone else now, looking for any little advantage, even trying to influence the referees through the media.
During the conference finals the Bulls stepped slightly out of character by constantly criticizing the officiating. They have griped about referees before, usually when they were getting assaulted by the New York Knicks or the Miami Heat in playoffs past, but their complaints then were almost always limited to a sarcastic comment or two from Jackson, not the kind of tirades that marked the Indiana series. Such outbursts are an indication that the Bulls can no longer afford to be above the fray.
In fact, officiating could be a prominent factor in the Finals, because the Bulls and Jazz test referees' discretion as much as any teams in the league. The Jazz offense relies heavily on screens, not merely by 6'9", 256-pound forward Karl Malone and other big men on the pick-and-roll, but from the guards, particularly Hornacek and John Stockton, who set picks along the baseline. Utah is often accused of setting those screens illegally, and it won't be a surprise if Chicago joins that chorus. On the other hand the Jazz, like every other team in the league, will charge that Jordan is protected by the referees, on offense and defense.
Jackson began lobbying the officials for foul calls in the Utah series even before the Bulls had dispatched the Pacers. "We're going into a series where Malone knows how to do things that create [foul] calls," Jackson said on the day before Game 7. "Stockton knows how to do things-coming off screens, going through the lane—that create foul calls. It's a flopping gesture. Michael has never played like that, where he flops, asks for fouls, acts out a foul situation."
However, the Bulls would be wise to worry more about the Jazz bench than the refs. Utah doesn't have reserves who can cause the kind of matchup problems that quick Indiana guards Jalen Rose and Travis Best did, but in swingman Shandon Anderson, forward Antoine Carr, point guard Howard Eisley and center Greg Ostertag, the Jazz has productive subs who can play for long stretches and wear down the Bulls. With the exception of forward-guard Toni Kukoc, who will probably return to his sixth-man role after sorting six games of the Indiana series, Chicago does not have that depth. Thus the 36-year-old Stockton and the 34-year-old Malone should not be as fatigued at the end of games as Jordan and Pippen, 32, and the longer the series goes, the more Utah's superior bench could be a factor.