- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
What New York Knick coach Pat Riley might call a "defining moment" occurred for Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls in the second period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals at Chicago Stadium on May 29. Pippen dribbled downcourt in his signature full-throttle glide, leaped high and unleashed a ferocious tomahawk dunk over Knick guard John Starks, who stumbled and fell to the floor. As Pippen trotted back upcourt, he glanced at Starks ever so briefly, with a wholly uninterested look, as if to say, "Oh, were you there? Didn't see you, man."
Pippen has long been capable of such supreme athleticism, as well as such supreme arrogance—after all, why shouldn't a guy with a Roman nose carry himself like a Roman emperor? But in the series against the Knicks, both Pippen's athleticism and his arrogance were backed by rugged resolution. Throughout the entertaining Eastern scrum, which ended last Friday night in Chicago with a 96-88 Bull victory in Game 6, Pippen and Michael Jordan were like pop-ups in an arcade game: Slam one down with a rubber hammer and the other springs up.
It was not surprising that Jordan was able to pick up Pippen, of course; such acts are part of Superman's daily agenda. But it was intriguing to see Pippen step into the temporary vacuums left by the sometimes physically exhausted and mentally overburdened Jordan (page 13). For the first time in Chicago's three successive marches into the NBA Finals, in fact, a Bull other than Jordan would have deserved to be named MVP in a playoff series, were such an honor awarded for a series other than the Finals.
The spotlight will inevitably be trained on Jordan and his superstar counterpart, Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns, in the 1993 NBA Finals, which began in Phoenix on Wednesday. But if Jordan's shaky shooting continues—a career 52% shooter, he made only 40% of his shots against the Knicks—Pippen's number will be called, again and again.
During the decisive Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, for example, it was not Jordan who made the big second-half shots but Pippen, he of the supposedly crumbling-cookie composure. When the Knicks, having almost eliminated a seven-point deficit, threatened to steal the game late in the fourth period, two Pippen jumpers with the shot clock almost at zero bailed out the Bulls. The first came from the deep right corner just after Pippen had flashed a smirk at Knick superfan Spike Lee, sitting at courtside. The second, a three-pointer from beyond the top of the key, was followed by Pippen's raising his index finger and glancing at Starks with another Were you there? expression on his face. Boy, the Knicks must've felt like killing Pippen.
Then again, that was precisely their strategy as the series began. And it will most likely be the plan employed by the Suns, though not as overtly. Look for Phoenix guard Dan Majerle, among others, to bang Pippen around physically, and look for the Suns' suddenly feisty point guard Kevin Johnson to get in Pippen's face a time or two. "It's no secret," says Bull coach Phil Jackson. "So goes Scottie Pippen, so goes Chicago." Nothing like a little pressure, eh, Pip?
The strategic rationale for getting tough, both physically and psychologically, with Pippen is this: Jordan must almost always be watched by two and, sometimes, three defenders. It is therefore impossible to double up on Pippen. But if one defender can shut him down, the Bulls might well go down too. But the underlying reason is this: Many teams still believe that when subjected to constant physical and mental duress, Pippen will crack like a walnut. So sure were the Knicks of this that soft-spoken forward Charles Smith, who was matched against Pippen much of the series, attempted to reinvent himself as a heavy—talking trash, throwing elbows, bumping chests, ignoring pregame handshakes and affecting a kind of sneer normally displayed only by teammate Anthony Mason. (Memo to Smith: Madonna could walk around in a nun's habit, but that doesn't mean we should call her Sister.) Smith's posturing made it particularly delicious for Pippen when he blocked the final two of Smith's four futile shots from point-blank range in the waning seconds of the Bulls' 97-94 win in Game 5. That victory, in New York, took the home court edge from the Knicks and turned the series Chicago's way.
Does Pippen, a Dream Teamer and a three-time All-Star, still warrant this no-respect approach? One of the first questions he was asked following his superb performance (24 points, seven assists, six rebounds) in Game 6 was this: "Scottie, do you think this was the series when you finally proved yourself?" Pippen took a deep, resigned breath and said, "I have two [championship] rings. I don't think I have anything to prove."
Whether he likes it or not, the yardstick against which Pippen will always be measured is Jordan, and in most cases, Pippen will be found wanting. His dilemma is nothing new, of course. Christopher Marlowe wrote some pretty good plays, but it was that Shakespeare fellow who got most of the attention in Elizabethan England. Closer to home was the situation of the Boston Celtics' Kevin McHale—no matter what he did, no matter how he did it, he could not be Larry Bird.
The difference betwen McHale and Pippen, though, is that the loquacious McHale seemed to enjoy his status. He was quite comfortable extolling his teammate's virtues, to the point of playing oral hagiographer, reciting the accomplishments of St. Larry to an eager press and public. That's not Pippen. There are many occasions, when the subject is Jordan, on which Pippen's pique rises suddenly to the surface. On Jan. 16, for example, when Pippen was asked about Jordan's 64-point explosion in a 128-124 overtime loss that night to the Orlando Magic in Chicago, he just pointed to this stat: Jordan, 49 shots. After Jordan's 54-point gem in Game 4 of the Eastern finals, Pippen said, "Michael had a hot hand, but when that happens, there's a lot of isolation, and it allowed New York to get back into the game. It's not that we don't want him to get his points, but it makes it tough for others to step up when they need to."