Let's Get physical

In forging a 2-2 series tie, the Knicks showed that they took the challenge of knocking off the champion Bulls literally
May 17, 1992

Anthony mason, the New York knicks' 6'7" block of a power forward, stood naked in front of his locker at Madison Square Garden after his team's 93-86 bludgeoning of the Chicago Bulls on Sunday night. His 250 pounds of critical mass dripped water from a recent shower. His left leg, raised and bent, rested on a cushion, and on top of his knee he balanced a soggy checkbook. While Mason had remembered to send his mom, Mary, a Mother's Day card, he had forgotten to enclose some dough. Now, after spending 27 minutes as a human battering ram, he was taking time to show he really cared.

In splitting the first four games of their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Bulls, Mason and the rest of the Knicks had kept their softer sides carefully cloaked, preferring instead to offer an elbow here and a body slam there. A matchup that was supposed to be a walk in the park for the Bulls—Chicago entered the series with 14 wins in a row over New York—had turned into a struggle for survival for the defending NBA champions. The Knicks' bruising style had limited the normally soaring Bulls to 88.8 points per game (21.1 below their regular-season average), dealt them as many playoff defeats as they suffered all last season and prompted one New York tabloid to scream BEATA-BULLS. "And if the refs had let us play a little more, the Bulls would be down 3-1," said Mason. "Or I'll wing it: 4-0."

As it was, during Chicago's 94-86 victory in Game 3 last Saturday, Michael Jordan stanched blood in his right nostril with a ball of cotton while forward Scottie Pippen sported a bandage on his chin and guard John Paxson had one on his right biceps. Before New York faced the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 of their first-round series on May 3, Pippen and Jordan had reportedly called the Knicks to wish them luck. But fond words from the Bulls have grown increasingly rare now that they find themselves costarring in a Bad Boys sequel full of twisted ankles and unkind cuts. "That's the method of their play," said Jordan after Game 4. "It's no different [from Detroit's]."

Nowhere was the Knicks' muscularity more evident than under the hoop. When he was guiding the Los Angeles Lakers, New York coach Pat Riley proffered a playoff adage: "No rebounds, no rings." Against Chicago the slogan for New York and its grinding, often gruesome attack might well be: "No offensive rebounds, no offense." With their lone pure shooter, center Patrick Ewing, letting loose more rim shots in Game 4 than a borscht-belt drummer (he made only five of 16 shots), the Knicks got 13 critical points off second and third chances. All told, in the first four games against Chicago, New York averaged nearly nine more rebounds a game than the Bulls, including four more off the offensive glass. And some of those were very offensive. "A forearm, a hip, two hands in the back—they do anything as far as position goes," said Chicago frontcourtman Scott Williams.

There was some method to the badness. While Riley instructed Ewing to "get his head under the rim" against the Pistons, against the Bulls that noggin drifted almost under the scoreboard over center court. So when Ewing, who was often double-teamed, missed a shot from the outside, the Knicks usually had an unchecked body crashing the boards. In addition, New York's power forwards ran baseline screens for small forward Xavier McDaniel. If Bulls power forward Horace Grant switched to cover McDaniel, the 210-pound Pippen was left to tangle with either Mason or 245-pound Charles Oakley. Those two tag-teamed for 12 offensive rebounds in Game 4, which is as many as all the Bulls got.

Before the series Riley announced that Chicago would consider New York "chopped liver" and that anyone who could "rationalize it, statisticalize it and recordize it" would dismiss his team's chances. At the same time he was playing a confidence game with the Knicks, challenging them to "make a statement now." Riley's mind probes can play havoc with some minds. "If the other guy is giving 200 percent," says McDaniel, "then you have to go out and give 400 percent."

At least 110% of NBA savants were stunned when the Knicks won Game 1 to gain their first victory at Chicago Stadium in 17 tries. Having been bothered over the years by the defense of center Bill Cartwright, Ewing moved out of his customary low-post spot and played on the perimeter. He finished with 34 points and five assists. What's more, Ewing, who on other occasions had picked up cheap fouls by chasing Jordan on defense, only double-teamed when Jordan drove. His role was to clog the lane and force Jordan to kick the ball back out. Ewing's defense against Jordan's forays toward the basket was a big reason that the Bulls had only one dunk in the 94-89 New York win.

The morning after the first game, Chicago coach Phil Jackson arrived at the Bulls' practice site in Deerfield, Ill., at 6:30 to break down film. By the time his team saw the footage, he had spliced in a 2¬Ω-minute instructional section on the art of shooting. Jordan seemed to get the message. Last Thursday, in the first quarter of Game 2, he poured in 15 straight points. But subjected to the bumping and the constant two-hand checking of Gerald Wilkins, New York's erratic guard, Jordan, who wound up with 27 points, converted only four of 13 shots during the rest of the game. Pippen, who was bothered by an ankle sprain, struggled as well, finishing with six points on 2-for-12 shooting.

Afterward, Jackson suggested that Jordan might be worn down. Said Jordan, "Phil's getting very good at making excuses for me." The Bulls survived a late Knick run to prevail 86-78, thanks mainly to Ewing, who shot only 11 times. They added backcourt pressure, which helped force New York into committing 23 turnovers, and guard B.J. Armstrong came off the bench to score 18 points for Chicago.

It was by outdoing the Knicks at what they do best—rebounding—that the Bulls took a 2-1 lead in the series. After getting only two offensive rebounds in the first half, Chicago racked up 26 boards, 10 of them offensive, after intermission to take command of Game 3. Jordan (32 points), held jamless for the first two games, finally squeezed in a reverse slam midway through the first quarter. Then, with four minutes to go in the half and Chicago ahead 48-39, His Airness levitated as high as ever on a breakaway in hopes of breaking New York's will. Instead he nearly broke the rim, clanging the ball all the way to midcourt. After that the Knicks went on an 11-3 run to make the score 51-50 in the Bulls' favor at intermission, but with the help of seven rebounds from backup center Will Perdue and 17 second-chance points, Chicago put New York away.

In Game 4 the blue-collar Knicks went back to their staples of glass work (they outrebounded the Bulls 52-33) and body work (they held Chicago to sub-50% shooting for the fourth time in the series) while getting an offensive tune-up from McDaniel, who had 24 points. Frustrated by the Knicks' rough play, Jackson got himself ejected near the end of the third quarter for giving ref Dick Bavetta an earful. "Losing Phil, we lost that leadership on the sidelines," Jordan said.

Said Jackson, "They were tackling the dribblers. That's football, not basketball. So we tried to get that point across."

While Chicago shrugged off the four-game split—"We came here to get back the home court advantage," said Jordan, "and we did"—it was clear that the Knicks were energized and the Bulls enervated by the physical tone of the series.

The Bulls have played through rougher stuff, though their postgame critique of the officiating did seem to show that the Knicks had gotten under their skin. "They're a dangerous team," said Grant. "But we're not scared or intimidated. No way at all. We'll be all right."

Unless the Knicks get a TKO on cuts.

PHOTONATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOSJordan found the driving difficult against Knicks like John Starks. PHOTOMANNY MILLANEwing and McDaniel doubled Pippen's offensive trouble in Game 4.