As the series began, the Bulls seemed anything but prepared. They had staggered to the regular-season finish line with nine losses in their last 11 games. The season finale could have been titled Playoff Tune-up from Hell, a 90-84 Chicago Stadium loss to the Cavaliers, who were missing Price, Nance and Daugherty.
Chicago's dangerous shooting guard, Craig Hodges (strained Achilles tendon), power forward Horace Grant (sprained left elbow) and small forward Scottie Pippen (tendinitis, right shoulder) were nursing injuries. Jordan was in one piece, thankfully, but the questions about his move to point guard—for the Bulls' last 24 games, during which they were 13-11—were taking on a testy quality. "If we don't play any better than this," said Jordan, after the season's finale, "we certainly will get swept."
Then Jordan decided to leave a wake-up call, loud and clear. The day before the series began, he predicted that the Bulls would win in four. He knew his words would end up on the Cavaliers' bulletin board, but he felt he had to take the chance. Then reserve forward Brad Sellers did his part by suggesting that the Bulls wear black sneakers—as Jordan had done in the NBA All-Star Game—to change their luck. During a bus ride to the hotel before Game 1, coach Doug Collins sprang a surprise, too, when he gave the team a multiple-choice test on the Cavs' offense.
And so, pumped up, black-shod and well prepared, Chicago went out and won Game 1 on April 28 95-88, putting the Cavs' franchise record in opening playoff games at 0-7. Price's absence was certainly a major factor. "The guys seemed a little tight, a little disorganized," Price said afterward, in an understatement. "Nobody was taking charge and getting us into things." It was Jordan who was in charge. With the Bulls holding a commanding third-period lead, he stopped at the press table and said to a couple of Chicago writers who had predicted Cleveland in three, "Sweep, my butt."
Price returned for Game 2 (at only about 80%, according to coach Lenny Wilkens) and Cleveland won by 96-88. Ron Harper (31 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists) outplayed Jordan (30 points, 7 turnovers), who, exercising self-censorship, pronounced his play "horse spit." Stronger words would aptly describe the front-running Cleveland fans who booed the struggling Daugherty (6 points, 2 of 8 from the foul line) loudly and frequently.
Still wearing their black sneakers—by now many of the front-office employees, as well as Collins, were doing the same—the Bulls won Game 3 on May 3 in Chicago, 101-94. Price (1 of 12 from the floor, 0 of 5 from three-point range) simply couldn't get moving, and Jordan could. He finished with 44 points.
Cleveland gutted out a 108-105 overtime victory last Friday night in Chicago to even the series at 2-2. Jordan had one of the more bittersweet 50-point nights in NBA history, blowing a free throw with nine seconds left that would have given Chicago a three-point lead. Instead, the miss left the score at 99-97, and Daugherty sent the game into overtime with two free throws. Trailing 107-105 in OT with 12 seconds left, Chicago still could have won the game, but center Bill Cartwright whirled to make an inside move and virtually handed the ball to Daugherty. It lacked only gift wrap to make it an official present.
"I don't blame Bill, I don't blame anybody," said Jordan after the game. "I can't pin it on anybody but me." He was disconsolate, and it was no act.
Curiously, the rest of the Bulls, particularly the younger players, took the loss well. It is difficult being Michael Jordan's teammate—one can never measure up—and perhaps, subconsciously, it was nice, even somewhat therapeutic, to see the clay on Mighty Michael's feet. In any case, one had the sense that the Bulls were not going to crawl into a hole and die for Game 5. Horace Grant's twin brother, Harvey, who plays for the Washington Bullets, was in the locker room after Game 4 and did a nice job of handling a couple of Horace's interviews. Even Chicago general manager Jerry Krause began a conversation with Harvey, before he saw a few of the other Bulls cracking up in the corner and realized he was being duped.
In Game 5, Jordan contributed just enough (14 points) in the first half to keep the Bulls close, while trying, in traditional point-guard fashion, to spread the wealth. Some of it even went to Cartwright (12 first-half points), with whom Jordan has coexisted uneasily on the court all season. Even in Sunday's game, Jordan at one point snapped at Cartwright. "Catch the ball!" after a pass had gone through his hands. But in that game, and in fact, throughout the series, Cartwright, the center of the past, was at least the equal of Daugherty, the center of the future.