Before game 7 of the NBA eastern conference semifinals at Chicago Stadium on Sunday, referee Jake O'Donnell strode onto the court and interrupted New York Knick forward Xavier McDaniel, who was doing his stretching exercises. O'Donnell asked McDaniel to show him his fingernails. The X-Man has nails on the longish side, but after a quick inspection, O'Donnell walked away chuckling, satisfied that the talons in question were short of lethal. A few hours later O'Donnell's cursory hand check did indeed seem laughable. For after the Chicago Bulls had blown out New York 110-81 to win a scratch-and-claw series, it was once again clear that the most dangerous digits on any court are the well-manicured ones belonging to Michael Jordan.
Picking Jordan's defining moment in this game isn't easy. It may have come as early as the Bulls' first possession, when he drove headlong into the lane to draw a foul and made the two free throws; it may have come later in the first quarter, when he went jaw-to-jaw with a fractious McDaniel and they each received a technical from O'Donnell; or it may have come as late as the third quarter, when Jordan keyed a Bulls surge by weaving through three Knicks for an acrobatic layup, stole the ensuing in-bounds pass, lost the ball and then raced downcourt to strip McDaniel of the ball as X drove in for what would have been a surefire deuce. In the first seventh-game victory of his magical career, Jordan scored 42 points and made certain the defending champs stopped acting like defensive champs. "It was the way he got his points," said New York guard Gerald Wilkins. "He got his team going. That's what superstars do."
Chicago forward Scottie Pippen, who contributed 17 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, got a lift when he saw Jordan confront McDaniel in the first quarter. "He was showing that we weren't going to back down," Pippen said.
Said power forward Horace Grant, whose three blocked shots in the third quarter ignited Chicago's fast break and helped stretch a 56-51 halftime lead to 79-64, "Michael really got us going; then the other guys started to contribute. When everyone's contributing, we're very tough to beat."
May 24, 1992
Jordan made his point by where he made his points. "We never feared going into the paint," he said. "We wanted to break them down."
Through the first six games New York had established a neo-Pistonian toughness and a hard-shell interior defense that the Bulls had trouble cracking. The Knicks had outrebounded, outassisted and outshot Chicago from both the field and the free throw line. And in the Bulls' 100-86 loss in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden last Thursday night, Jordan had converted only nine of 25 shots, 22 of which were perimeter jumpers. Afterward Wilkins proclaimed that New York had hounded Jordan into becoming a "mistake player."
So as they headed back to Chicago, the Bulls were on the brink of suffering the biggest playoff upset since 1981, when the champion Los Angeles Lakers fell in the first round to the Houston Rockets. Jordan questioned the character of his team. "We didn't have anything to defend last year," he said, "so we were more aggressive. We should have the same kind of hunger this year, but we don't."
For most of this season and last, Chicago had faced scarcely a speck of adversity, having gone 15-2 in the 1991 playoffs and 67-15 during the 1991-92 regular season. However, when the Bulls were confronted by the intractable Knicks, their stature seemed to diminish and their composure dissolved. "At one time they had the same things we have," said Knickerbocker coach Pat Riley early last week. "Hunger, spirit and heart."
Indeed, the Knicks were the aggressors before Game 7. Last Saturday forward Anthony Mason underscored how he felt about the Bulls by showing up for a workout at New York's practice facility in Purchase, N.Y., in a red-and-black warm-up. "First I'll take their colors," said Mason. "Then I'll take their names."
Meanwhile, in Deerfield, Ill., Jordan and Pippen stole out of practice without speaking to the press. While Riley spoke ominously of the Knicks' "defining the reality of the situation," Chicago coach Phil Jackson recommended that his players go home and rent Hanto Yo, a film about an Indian warrior who hunts in his attempt to become a man. Grant actually looked for the flick, but to no avail. "So I meditated instead." he said.
If Chicago was seeking a soothing vision for Game 7, it appeared in the form of O'Donnell. The Bulls had complained repeatedly about New York's physical play. Jackson had likened it to "hand-to-hand combat," "muscleball" and "football." These and other disparaging remarks about the officiating cost him $2,500.
The Bulls believed they would get a fairer shake from O'Donnell, the NBA's best ref, and his veteran aides, Hue Hollins and Ed T. Rush. And from the Bulls' point of view, they did. Although O'Donnell didn't assess McDaniel a pregame clipping penalty, he was tougher on Wilkins, who until Sunday had helped hold Jordan (some would say literally) to 46.9% shooting. In the first quarter Wilkins drew two whistles for muscling Jordan—who would make 12 of 13 free throws—20 feet from the basket. "When Michael sees that kind of officiating, he's going to the basket," said Wilkins afterward. "J knew. He knew. I knew he knew."
Clearly this wasn't the team the Knicks had come to know and mug. "Whenever you have an officiating crew like that, it's hard to beat us," Grant said. "We felt all along the Knicks were pushing us, and we finally got the calls."
The Bulls' mewling about the officiating tended to obscure New York's gutty play. It was an ascendant series for center Patrick Ewing, who for the first time in his seven seasons in New York had a supporting cast that enabled him to measure his mettle. In Game 6 he shook off a sprain of his left ankle in the third quarter and roared back to score 11 of his 27 points in the fourth. When he returned to the game after only a few minutes on the bench, he evoked memories of former New York center Willis Reed limping out for the opening tip in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals despite a hip injury and inspiring the Knicks past the Lakers. "Patrick played like a thoroughbred," said Jordan.
After Game 6, as Ewing dressed gingerly by his locker, guard John Starks sat nearby, explaining how sure he had been that Ewing would return to the game. The defiant Starks had outscored Jordan 27-21 and shamelessly tackled Pippen, an act that earned him a $5,000 fine. As Starks rambled on, Ewing couldn't resist interrupting. The true reason he had gone back in, Ewing said, was that "I had [Starks] on the bench yelling in my ears, 'No pain! No pain!' "
New York drew that sort of willpower from Riley, whose strategy, preparation and motivation were nearly decisive. And for 6½ games the team's belief shook the theretofore unshakable Bulls. "The combination of intensity, intelligence and commitment from the Knicks is so high, it scares the Bulls," said Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl before Sunday's game. "It took a big swipe at all the confidence they've built the past two seasons."
So what sort of Bulls team will emerge from this series? It may be a tired one. Even though Chicago won 41 regular-season games by 10 or more points, Jordan, Pippen and Grant each averaged more than 39 minutes a game in their quest to reach 70 victories, and their work loads only went up against New York. In addition, Chicago's Bullpen, a collection of specialists on the bench, didn't seem to find its rhythm until Game 7, when it racked up 30 points. During the series Jackson shuttled his subs back and forth in no discernible pattern. "Basketball is a game you have to let come to you," said Bulls reserve forward Scott Williams. "When all you get is short minutes, sometimes you can't get into the flow of the game."
On the other hand, Chicago has the home court advantage throughout the playoffs as well as its earsplitting crowd of 18,676, which had never been more raucous than it was on Sunday. Moreover, neither the Cleveland Cavaliers (page 18), the Bulls' opponents in the Eastern Conference finals, nor the two remaining Western Conference teams, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Utah Jazz, are as physical as the Knicks. Nor do any of these teams have a defensive presence inside as gifted as Ewing.
A sense of relief swept through Chicago's locker room after Game 7. The phrase 8 MORE, scribbled on a message board, reminded the Bulls of how many victories they still needed to retain their title. Said Jordan, "This series was like a slap in the face."
In Jordan, the Bulls have the best pair of hands on the planet with which to slap back and move forward.