Michael Jordan, furious over the attention directed toward his trip to an Atlantic City casino early last week, had stopped talking to the media off the court. But on the court on Monday afternoon the Knicks couldn't shut him up. Jordan scored 54 points and made six three-pointers as the Chicago Bulls evened the Eastern Conference finals at two wins apiece with a 105-95 victory over New York.
The world didn't know what Jordan was thinking after his 18-of-30 shooting performance at the Madhouse on Madison, but it was obvious what was running through the Knicks' minds: He's Michael Jordan, and we're not.
Only once did the Knicks allow Jordan to get to the basket for a layup, but he still hit every variety of jump shot known to man, each one a dagger deep into New York's exaggerated sense of bravado. After handling Jordan & Co. with relative ease in Games 1 and 2 at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks let the Bulls off the canvas in Saturday's Game 3 and then on Monday played the role of Jordan's personal indoor carpet—all in all, a discouraging Memorial Day weekend in Chicago for the New Yorkers.
Perhaps Chicago's 103-83 rout in Game 3 was to be expected. After all, the Bulls were virtually shamed into extending maximum effort because, as Knick coach Pal Riley colorfully put it, they had been "hung by their thumbs in the city square" after their teamwide failure in Gotham. Bull forward Horace Grant had to prove that a sprained right ankle wouldn't take him completely out of the series. Dream Teamer Scottie Pippen had to prove (again) that he wouldn't fold up like a cheap umbrella in pressure situations. Guard John Paxson had to prove that he wasn't invisible, and Jordan had to prove that he could once again inspire his teammates as well as he could double down in Atlantic City.
But Monday's loss might have been more discouraging for the Knicks because, Jordan's brilliance notwithstanding, they were in position to win. Jordan was gassed and in foul trouble down the stretch but still found the energy to make a huge 15-foot jump shot with 1:36 left. The basket gave the teetering Bulls a 99-90 edge that sealed the win and sent the two teams back to New York for Game 5 on Wednesday.
Chicago got itself back in the series by dominating Game 3. The Knicks still came out for that game with attitude—hey, these guys go to church with attitude—as evidenced by forward Charles Smith, who ignored Jordan's offer of a pregame handshake, a page out of the Bill Laimbeer book of diplomacy. But what they didn't come out with was an answer to Chicago's trapping defense, which was so aggressive that the Bulls double-teamed the ball immediately after New York got the opening tip. The other significant factors were the solid all-around play of Pippen and the perimeter shooting of Paxson, who, like Macaulay Culkin, had been utterly lost in New York.
It is a simple fact that in the playoffs even Jordan needs teammates to hit open jumpers for the Bulls to succeed. Don't forget that Paxson, a robotic but deadly shooter, was so effective during the Bulls" first title run that he was doing Late Night with David Letterman back in the summer of '91. In Game 3, Paxson converted five of his seven field goal attempts for 14 points.
Pippen, meanwhile, was all over the court, his versatility compensating for Jordan's woeful three-for-18 shooting on Saturday and complementing Jordan on Monday. Though the Knicks won't admit it publicly, they have clearly directed their psychological artillery at Pippen, believing, as the Detroit Pistons did in earlier such Eastern Conference set-tos, that he, unlike Jordan, is vulnerable to taunts and other forms of mental pressure. It finally got to Pippen in the fourth period of Game 2 when he lost his head after being whistled for a double dribble, and he was tossed by referee Billy Oakes, who minutes later ejected Knick guard Greg Anthony for committing a flagrant foul on Jordan. By that time Pippen had had his fill of the derogatory SKAAH-tee! SKAAH-tee! jeers of the Garden crowd.
A major factor, however, in Games 3 and 4 was the Bulls' defensive pressure, which forced 37 turnovers in the two games and, more important, kept Patrick Ewing (45 points) from getting good post position inside, as he had done for long stretches of Games 1 and 2.
Chicago's tenacity eventually frustrated New York, whose collective inclination in any event strays somewhat from the path of Gandhi. The key figure was guard John Starks, who seems able to keep his head when the Knicks are playing well but frequently misplaces it when they're not. So composed and statesmanlike had Starks been in the Garden that in the fourth period of Game 2, while out of the game, he actually summoned veteran guard Rolando Blackman to the sideline and imparted some advice. At the start of this season the only advice Starks could have given Blackman was about the interstate highways in Starks's native Oklahoma; even then Blackman might have preferred a map. Anyway, Starks warmed up on Saturday by yammering periodically at Pippen, and then, early in the fourth period, he took on Jordan. Starks later said his jawing at Jordan was precipitated by a Jordan elbow—"When you're a man, you can't let him do that," he recited from page 1 of the macho code—but it appeared to begin when Starks swatted at the ball and hit Jordan instead. Jordan walked toward Starks, Starks walked toward Jordan, and there was some shoving. Each was assessed a technical, and the matter appeared over.