HIS HIGHNESS

Michael Jordan and the Bulls soared to a 3-1 lead over L.A. in the NBA Finals
June 16, 1991

Being enthusiastic young men playing in their first NBA Finals, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls took care to visit with some of the Los Angeles celebrities who attended last week's championship series games at The Forum in Inglewood. In Friday night's Game 3, for example, Pippen, while making a miraculous save that led to a Jordan dunk, crashed into the courtside seat occupied by actor Nick Nolte. As the halftime buzzer was about to sound in Sunday's Game 4, Jordan released a sideline jumper, watched it swish, then turned and smiled at actor Danny Glover. And late in the game, Jordan, while in pursuit of a loose ball that he couldn't get, went airborne near Glover's seat, landed in the second row and was helped to his feet by Gene Siskel, the Chicago-based film critic who gave him a definite thumbs-up. "We love you, Michael," said Siskel as he sent Jordan on his way.

At week's end in Tinseltown, Siskel's review of the proceedings might have described Chicago's performance as "a spectacle of grace and power!" In scene after scene during the Michael and Magic Finals, the Bulls were seen launching themselves all over The Forum, and the Lakers were left waiting, watching, wondering and worrying. Chicago's 97-82 win in Game 4 put the team just one victory from its first championship in the 25-year existence of the franchise and put L.A. in what the Lakers' Magic Johnson called "a state of disbelief." Jordan agreed. "We never thought we could dominate a team of the Lakers' stature and the legacy they carry," he said after the game. And the Bulls built their 3-1 series lead—Game 5 was Wednesday night, also at The Forum—with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mr. Stature and Legacy, seated next to the Los Angeles bench. It was Abdul-Jabbar's third trip to The Forum this season, but the first in which Laker coach Mike Dunleavy wished he could rush him into the game. Add Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, and maybe it would have been a contest.

For Magic, the first four games were the here-today-gone-tomorrow Finals, a series replete with mysterious disappearances. Johnson was for the most part remarkably (though not spectacularly) consistent, but part of his energy was expended—futilely, it seemed—making sure that his mates did not slip through the looking glass or tumble down some rabbit hole. Forward James Worthy, bothered by a badly sprained right ankle that as of late Sunday night had left him questionable for Game 5, wasn't the reliable performer of past playoff campaigns, particularly on the boards, where he had a total of nine rebounds in Games 2, 3 and 4. Magic's backcourt running mate, Byron Scott, made just five of 18 shots; the Lakers didn't know whether to scold him for not being offensive-minded or thank him for not shooting more. Nor were the Lakers getting much help from Scott's backup, Terry Teagle, who made just three of 13 shots. Magic, who gave back $100,000 of his salary last year to enable L.A. to fit the newly obtained Teagle under its salary cap, just might ask for his money back.

Thank goodness for Sam Perkins. Right, Sam? SAM? SAM! Uh-oh. After playing so well in Games 1, 2 and 3, Perkins, the other starting forward, disappeared on Sunday, making just one of 15 shots, to go with zero assists, zero steals and zero blocked shots. (He did have 10 rebounds, though.)

How secretly gleeful Jordan's teammates must have been when they heard talk of a supporting cast failing to live up to expectations, and that that cast wasn't Chicago's. Since a shaky performance in a 93-91 Game 1 defeat at, Chicago on June 2, the Jordanaries (specifically, forwards Pippen and Horace Grant, guard John Paxson, center Bill Cartwright and reserves Cliff Levingston, a forward, and Craig Hodges, a guard) had been anything but ordinary. And Jordan was, well, Jordan. Comparisons are usually odious but sometimes unavoidable: Through the first four games of the series, Jordan averaged 31.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 11.8 assists and 2.3 steals to Johnson's 19.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 10.5 assists and 1.3 steals. Those numbers are not presented to belittle Magic's play, but, rather, to honor Jordan's, as Johnson did after Game 4. "I tip my hat to my competitor," said Magic. "He's doing a great job."

Ninety minutes before Game 4, however, it was uncertain exactly what Jordan would be able to accomplish with a right toe that had been bruised in Game 3, two nights earlier. "It's bearable when I walk, but I don't know about running," said Jordan. Jordan was wearing a pair of top-of-the-line running shoes from his favorite footwear company and pointed to the size-13 Air Jordans he would be lacing up shortly; there was a small hole cut in the area of the right toe to alleviate pressure. "As you can see," said Jordan, "I made an adjustment."

But the adventures of air-conditioned Jordan lasted only until the first timeout of the game, at 6:18 of the first quarter. He changed shoes because he felt they were too loose when he made a sudden cut. A minute later, he went left around Scott, dunked over Perkins and came down grimacing. But the more he ran, the better the toe felt. And the better he felt, the worse the Lakers felt. His jumper in front of Glover gave the Bulls a 52-44 halftime lead. And in the third period, Jordan either scored or assisted on seven of the Bulls' 10 field goals as they built a 16-point lead and never looked back. The Lakers' 82-point output was their lowest in 116 championship series games since the advent of the 24-second clock in 1954.

By this point in the series, though, it was really no surprise to watch the young and zealous Bulls turn the once-proud purple and gold inside out. What turned the Finals in the Bulls' direction was Game 2 at Chicago on June 5, when they buried Los Angeles with a 38-point third period en route to a 107-86 victory. The Bulls' starters shot an incredible 47 for 64 (.734), with Paxson's 8 for 8 being the most impressive.

Paxson had been singled out by Jordan for missing four open shots in Game 1—it's kind of frightening that Jordan's memory for his teammates' negative stats is that specific and accurate—but Paxson came back to drill all seven of his jumpers plus a layup for a final line that included no turnovers and six assists. One continues to wonder if players like Pippen and Paxson, upon being subtly criticized by Jordan, go home and throw darts at an Air Jordan poster to take out their frustrations. If they do, they don't admit it. "Michael has to smack us in the head a few times," Paxson said when asked about the criticism.

Jordan, meanwhile, was an otherworldly 15 of 18 from the floor (with 13 assists and seven rebounds) in Game 2, which included a move that even Jordan later ranked in his alltime top 10. Early in the fourth period he drove the lane, raised the ball as if to dunk with his right hand and, upon seeing Perkins slide over, put the ball in his left hand for an underhanded scoop shot, thereby running the gamut of acrobatic possibilities in the wink of an eye. "It was just one of those creative things," said Jordan, as if we could all then sit back and say, "Ah, one of those."

The Lakers, Scott in particular, were more inclined to remember what they considered to be Jordan's taunting during Chicago's 59-43 second-half roll. "That's something you just don't do this early in a series," said Scott. "But since he's Michael, I guess he feels he can get away with it. It angers us to see someone of his caliber act that way. But I've seen him do it before, so I'm not surprised."

Did he or didn't he? Well, the taunting tribunal is still out, and this thought comes to mind about the vacationing Detroit Pistons: When they taunted, they were at least considerate enough to be explicit about it. Jordan does make a lot of enthusiastic, hand-pumping gestures, and at one point, after hitting a jumper, he spread his palms upward toward the Laker bench as if to say, "What can you do? You can't stop me." But Jordan later denied the taunting charge. "I wasn't saying anything to any of their players. It was more or less my self-motivation and excitement at what I did." The flip side to Jordan's great gift of inspiring wonder is that he invariably inspires jealousy and resentment, too, and, champion or not, he cannot match the Pied Piper popularity of Magic. There is a bit of an anti-Jordan undertone to this—traceable to some Laker players and to some members of the media—almost as if Jordan must be torn down so that Magic can remain on top. It shouldn't be that way—there's room for both.

At any rate, Magic fans had a grand time last Friday night during the third period of Game 3 at The Forum. Los Angeles built a 67-54 lead, and Jordan just couldn't extricate himself from the tight web constructed by Scott's basic man-to-man and the help offered by Scott's teammates whenever Jordan moved toward the basket. Ah, but then it started to rain on the Lakers. Over the next eight minutes, eight different players scored for Chicago—curtain call for the supporting cast, please, as Jordan had only two free throws during this stretch—and the Bulls tied the score at 74 midway through the final period. Jordan ultimately sent the game into overtime with a 14-foot jumper with 3.4 seconds left and then made a steal, assisted Paxson on a jumper and made two consecutive layups and two free throws to seal a 104-96 victory.

Going into Sunday's Game 4, the Lakers were concerned with two aspects of the Chicago defense. First, though the Bulls were using their full-court and half-court traps much more selectively than they did in their four-game Eastern Conference finals sweep of the Pistons, they were accomplishing two significant ends with those traps: They were wearing Magic down, and they were draining precious seconds off the 24-second clock, so that many of the Laker shots were of the scrambling variety, particularly when the ball wasn't in Johnson's hands.

"If we were beating the trap once in a while with wide-open layups, it would be one thing," said L.A. assistant coach Randy Pfund, "but we're not even getting those." Of more dire consequence to the Lakers was the puzzle presented by Chicago's conventional half-court defense. The Bulls realized after Game 1 that the Los Angeles post-up players like Magic, Worthy and Perkins like to spin into the middle to do their damage. The Bulls' interior defenders countered that by positioning themselves inside the men they were guarding to prevent the move to the middle. And they created double-teams in the low post not by having a guard like Paxson doubling down from the outside but by bringing over a big player like Grant or Cartwright from the blind or baseline side. That also meant that Scott, who has made his living by stepping into the seams created by double-teams, always had a man, usually Paxson, on him. And his shooting reflected it.

The Lakers knew that Chicago's defensive strategy was working, but they could not counteract it on Sunday. The Bulls' defensive rotations were too quick and aggressive, and the L.A. offense was much too passive. Yes, the Bulls knew that their double-team strategy made them vulnerable on passes inside to center Vlade Divac, and, yes, Divac, the only other Laker besides Magic with a measurable pulse on Sunday, scored 27 points. But the Bulls were convinced that Magic and Divac alone could not beat them. And they were right.

There was not much for the Lakers to say after Game 4. They had lost at home and on the road, in overtime and in regulation, in a close game and in a rout. But Magic, trouper that he is, tried to put his feelings into words: "I'm so intense at night, can't sleep, just rustling around waiting for the game, and then...this. But you know what else I am? Realistic. I can see this is happening, and I just have to deal with it. They are beating us, and beating us bad. They're a great team doing what they're supposed to be doing. And right now, we're not."

PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOSIn Game 3, Jordan jump-shot the Bulls into OT and nailed L.A. with key layups. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHWith Pippen (33) catching the Lakers flat-footed en route to 19 points in Game 3... PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH...and Grant busting loose for 22 of his own, Chicago proved it's no longer a one-man team. PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOSBald truth: L.A. lacks the Sunday punch Sunday's guest once provided. PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOSIn their eyeball-to-eyeball Finals showdown, Michael outshone Magic in most categories.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)