His 87 points were the least of it. True, the Michael Jordan air show at Chicago Stadium last weekend in the Bulls' back-to-back wins over the Knicks had enough of his signature double-pump reverses and tongue-wagging dunks to fill a highlight film. But the Bulls look a somewhat surprising 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday because Jordan did so much more. He doubled down (on defense) as shrewdly as a card counter in Vegas. He snatched crucial rebounds. He took the Knicks' disruptive full-court press and negated it with his superb ball handling. He did all this even though he was limping. And most of all, as Air Jordan ascended, he lifted his teammates with him to a height they had never reached before.
Jordan accounted for 40 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and six steals in a 111-88 blowout last Saturday, and 47 points (18 in the decisive fourth quarter), 11 rebounds, six assists and two blocks in a 106-93 win on Sunday. The bulk of all that damage came after Jordan re-injured his groin in the first half of Saturday's Game 3. He had hurt it on March 7; the injury sidelined him for the only game he missed all season.
"Once I got out there, I wasn't going to think of myself as being hurt," Jordan said after Game 4. "This is a playoff game, and the pain is for before and after." To treat the injury, he spent several hours of his weekend hooked up to an electric nerve-stimulating contraption that accelerates the healing of muscles. Jordan's fellow Bulls, meanwhile, were inspired enough to play some outstanding basketball. Bill Cartwright, the 31-year-old center, contained his former Knick teammate Patrick Ewing. Scottie Pippen provided support on offense and defense that diminished New York's small forwards, Johnny Newman and Kiki Vandeweghe. Horace Grant rebounded (he had 11) like a true power forward in Game 3.
The spark plug of the Bulls' all-cylinders performance was no mystery to Knick coach Rick Pitino. "I think when Michael first came into the league everybody questioned whether he made people better," Pitino said on Sunday. "But right now, if you had to say who the best player is, you'd say Michael Jordan. Not only is he great by himself, but he is raising the play of everybody."
There is a theory among some NBA savants that goes like this: In the playoffs, teams have the preparation time to stop their opponents' favorite offensive options. The hardest option to stop, however, is the creative player on the perimeter who is highly skilled at passing, penetrating and shooting. Teams with such a player tend to go farthest. The theory may also help to explain Chicago's current success and New York's struggles.
The Knicks desperately depend on Ewing's points in the low post, and in their three losses they didn't get a lot of them. For the series, Ewing was averaging 18.5 points on 44.6% shooting (versus 22.7, 56.7% for the year) and was shut out in the final minutes of Games 1 and 4. Cartwright practiced against Ewing for three years, until he was dealt for power forward Charles Oakley this past off-season, and he was effective not only at denying Ewing the ball, but also at forcing him to the baseline when he did catch it. "You want him out of the lane," Cartwright said. "He's dangerous either way, but he's less dangerous for offensive rebounds when you force him out."
Cartwright, meanwhile, averaged 15 points and 7.3 rebounds to give the Bulls a low-post producer of their own. "If I get the opportunities, I'm just going to try to cash in," he said.
Jordan neutralized New York's other main force—its press. The Knicks applied pressure 43 times in Games 3 and 4 with only two backcourt turnovers to show for it. More often that not, Jordan pierced the first line of defense and created some memorable havoc upcourt. "If we can get it ahead, that plays to our strength," Chicago coach Doug Collins said. "Pippen and Grant can roam, [shooting guard Craig] Hodges spots up, Bill is open underneath and MJ is taking it to the hoop. We've got some things we can do with that." Like fill another highlight film.
The Bulls picked the series opener from the Knicks' pockets on May 9, shutting New York down 8-0 in the final 3:43 of regulation to tie the game at 103. Jordan then scored 9 of his 34 points in overtime as the Bulls won 120-109. The Knicks drew even two days later with a 114-97 victory when Jordan had only 15 points. As the series headed to Chicago it seemed to be shaping up as an emotional roller coaster. The ride affected New York, in particular, as the Knicks engaged in some cheekiness that backfired.
During Game 2, after stealing the ball from Jordan, Mark Jackson dribbled downcourt and stuck out his tongue a la Jordan. Collins showed Jordan a tape of the mocking gesture. After Game 3, Pitino pooh-poohed Jordan's injury. Collins relayed the words to Jordan. Then after Game 4, when Jordan shot a whopping 28 free throws and hit 23, guard Gerald Wilkins attacked the officiating. "Michael got it going, and the refs said let's keep it going," Wilkins said. "He got every call."
All of that bulletin-board fodder came on the heels of the Knicks' high jinks in Philadelphia, when five players picked up a dust mop near the court to flaunt their three-game sweep. "That's pushing it a little bit too much," said Bulls reserve forward Charles Davis. "I never believe in celebrating too early."
Instead, the cautious Bulls were riding high above it all—on Air.