The Eastern Conference Semifinal playoff series between the Chicago Bulls and the Philadelphia 76ers promised to feature the continuing adventures of Bump and Thump, as the Sixers' noggin-knocking, body-bashing duo of Charles Barkley and Rick Mahorn have come to be called. But by the time the Bulls left the City of Brotherly Loathe on Sunday night, a 3-1 lead tucked away in their black-and-red travel bags, Bump and Thump had all but turned into Pfft and Whoosh. And the series' story line had taken a familiar turn—toward the continuing stupendous postseason play of Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
Jordan scored 45 points, 18 of them in the fourth period, in Chicago's crucial, come-from-behind 111-101 Game 4 victory at the Spectrum on Sunday afternoon. That win set it up so that one more Chicago triumph—the series returned to Chicago Stadium on Wednesday night—and the Bulls would advance to the Eastern finals for the second straight year. Jordan had already scored 39 and 45 points in Chicago's Game 1 (96-85) and Game 2 (101-96) victories at home and was even more incredible in the Bulls' 118-112 loss in last Friday night's Game 3 in Philly, scoring 24 points in the fourth period to finish with 49. Jeez, the guy just can't seem to get 50.
Chicago probably won Game 4 by the way it played in that Game 3 defeat, in which it nearly overcame a 93-69 deficit in the final 10 minutes before running out of time. The Bulls' frantic full-court trap—"our basic scrum-it-up, roustabout defense," coach Phil Jackson calls it—exposed the 76ers as a team that becomes complacent with a big lead and nearly catatonic when called upon to protect a rapidly shrinking one. Then again, maybe Game 3 was a carryover from Game 2, when Philly let a 57-46 halftime lead go up in smoke.
At any rate, Game 4 offered more of the same, much to the displeasure of the vocal Philadelphia fans. The Sixers led by as much as 80-66 late in the third period and were still ahead 89-80 early in the fourth. But they seemed powerless down the stretch as Jordan and a supporting cast that included Ed Nealy, a 6'7", 250-pound power forward who looks like a refugee from someone's defensive line, took over the game. Barkley, normally indefatigable, was suddenly ineffectual. The Bulls' persistent double-teaming, combined with the intractable, elbow-in-the-back defense of Nealy, turned Barkley into little more than a Bump on a log. He missed six of eight free throws in the fourth period (he was only 6 of 15 from the line in the game) and had but one field goal in the final 12 minutes.
"I knew he was real tired because he didn't talk as much, and talking energizes him," said Jordan of Barkley, who finished with 22 points. "You could see his battery wind down as the game went on." From the Sixer locker room, where he sat exhausted and nearly speechless, Barkley said, "We lost the game because I didn't make my free throws."
Before the series began on May 7, the NBA office warned both teams that retribution for fighting and unduly physical play would be costly. The Sixers may have overreacted to the edict in Game 1. With the exception of Barkley (30 points, 20 rebounds), they played sluggishly and passively, particularly Thump, who, having missed the team bus, arrived at Chicago Stadium just 45 minutes before tip-off and later said he felt like he had been "catching up" the whole night. Mahorn had only four points and eight rebounds.
"Rod Thorn [the league's vice-president for operations] said not to hurt anybody," said Barkley, "not don't hit anybody. You can hit somebody without hurting them."
And you can hurt somebody without hitting them. At one point during the third period of Game 1, Barkley gestured at teammate Mike Gminski and hollered to the bench, "Get him out of here!" A few minutes later, he castigated teammate Ron Anderson for not going after a rebound. Anderson woofed back, and Barkley later had to admit that he had been at fault on that play for not boxing out. Barkley also said that the incidents were overblown by the media and that among team members, his outbursts are not usually taken personally. Perhaps. But they seemed to be symptomatic of a panicking team that was destined to self-destruct, an impression that was magnified in Game 2.
Barkley had 19 rebounds in that game but scored only 16 points, two of them in the second half. He succumbed much too easily to the Bulls' relentless double-teaming, preferring to swing the ball around the perimeter in search of an open teammate instead of attacking the basket. Jackson's scrambling of his defensive matchups for this series was effective. Power forward Horace Grant guarded Barkley (mobility on mobility), center Bill Cartwright guarded Mahorn (bulk on bulk) and small forward Scottie Pippen guarded Gminski, the Sixer center who plays mostly outside, so Pippen could be the designated doubler. Barkley had written KICK ASS in magic marker on the back of his sneakers, but he kicked none.
Neither did Mahorn (14 points, two rebounds). Oh, he knocked Jordan to the floor as Jordan drove down the lane late in the third period, but that didn't come close to knocking the Bulls off their game. After the whistle, Mahorn compounded the transgression by shoving Bulls forward Stacey King and drawing a technical. And Jordan then converted the two free throws plus the T to give Chicago a 78-77 lead it never lost.
Mahorn's hard-nosed interior defense and underrated offensive repertoire had been major factors in Philly's surprising first-place finish in the Atlantic Division this season, so his ineffectiveness against the Bulls, which continued in Games 3 and 4, was significant. How to explain it? Mahorn didn't have an answer, but Jackson suggested this one. "Mahorn had to wrestle an alligator down there," he said, referring to Cartwright. "Bill accomplishes things that no one but the players on our team can realize." Apparently so, for Cartwright's offense (which would produce zero points in Game 3 and only four in Game 4) seems increasingly lumbering and ineffectual.
Before Game 3, the Sixers promised to come out and, as Barkley put it, "play desperate." Which they did—for 40 minutes. Barkley was especially desperate, beating the double-team by posting up closer to the basket and throwing around Chicago bodies like so many stuffed animals. Barkley finished the game with 20 rebounds (10 offensive), plus 34 points. Grant was the major victim when Barkley loosed his fateful lightning in the paint, and Grant admitted there wasn't much he could do to stop him.
"When the refs let him play, he's impossible," said Grant. How so? Grant smiled and got to his feet. "Well, his favorite move is to stay in the lane for, like, six seconds. Then, when the ball goes up, he grabs me here [around the hips], gives a yank and pulls me behind him. Great move. Impossible to stop."
The Alligator was probably Game 3's most invisible player, but Mahorn (10 points, three rebounds) never came into clear focus either. There was even something curiously desultory about his attempts at intimidation. Early in the fourth quarter he tripped the Bulls' B.J. Armstrong from behind on a fast break and, joined by Barkley, stood over the fallen Armstrong and glowered at him. Armstrong is the rookie guard, don't forget, who has such a youthful-looking face that he was charged the 14-and-under admission when he visited the Sears Tower in Chicago several months ago. What's next, Bump and Thump? Puppy-kicking?
The worst sign for the 76ers in Game 3 was the lineup the Bulls had on the floor when they made their spectacular comeback—Jordan joined by reserves Nealy, King, Armstrong and Craig Hodges. "Four quick guys and one, big, hard-nosed guy" is how Jordan described it. But Barkley seemed unfazed by the near-debacle as he held court on a variety of subjects in the Sixer locker room long after Game 3 had ended.
"Yo, L-Train!" he shouted at La Salle University star Lionel Simmons, a certain first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft, as Simmons wandered around the Philly locker room. "You already got all that first-round money spent?"
"No, not so, Charles," said Simmons.
"Hey, Lionel, it's your world, man," said Barkley. "I'm just livin' in it."
The subject turned to the makeshift Chicago lineup that finished the game. "What I'd like on Sunday, see, is if they started those same guys," Barkley said. "Then we'll see what happens."
Well, Barkley did get King in the starting lineup in place of Pippen, who was home in Arkansas for the funeral of his father. King responded with 21 points. And he got Nealy for 22 minutes. And he got Armstrong, who, in 26 well-played minutes, did not commit a turnover and did a creditable job of guarding Sixer point guard Johnny Dawkins.
But, most of all, he got Jordan, who finished with 11 assists, six rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots to go with his 45 points. Moreover, Jordan played excellent defense on Philly's Hersey Hawkins in the fourth period. It wasn't so much that Hawkins scored only two points in the final 12 minutes, it was more that Jordan wouldn't even let him touch the ball. The least recognized part of Jordan's game is his ability to slip picks and suddenly pop up in the passing lane, like a kid who finds a shortcut to the candy store. "Nobody has ever been better at the end of a game than Michael," said Jackson afterward. "Oscar Robertson was great, but this guy is a closer at both ends."
And that is something that Barkley was not in the first four games of the series. He looked almost dazed as he left the Spectrum. To everyone who approached him, he mumbled a few words, shook hands and walked away slowly. Mahorn looked even worse—he was limping badly because of a bruised knee.
A few minutes later, Jordan breezed by in the center of his entourage, waving, signing autographs, hugging his mother, Delores, who looked radiant in a gray suit with a corsage. On this Mother's Day afternoon, it was once again Michael's world, and everyone else was just livin' in it.