The Chicago Bulls-Cleveland Cavaliers playoff series should have been contested in a shrink's office—soundproof room, muted lighting and a bearded man, fingers clasped thoughtfully together, leaning forward and asking, "But how do you really feel about yourself?"
Elbows and insults flew in the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Bulls and the New York Knicks, but when the Bulls took on the Cavs in a final that matched the two best teams in the East, it was suddenly buzzwords at 94 feet: confidence...motivation...determination...will...mental edge...focus...intensity...peaks and valleys. It was enough to make you wish the Knicks' Xavier McDaniel were still around to plant an elbow in somebody's windpipe and holler, "Shut up and play the bleeping game!"
The series finally offered something in the way of playoff-intensity basketball, instead of case studies in psychology, on Monday when the Cavs beat the Bulls 99-85 at Richfield Coliseum to tie the series at 2-2.
But Games 1, 2 and 3 were the type of noncompetitive blowouts that wouldn't seem possible at this stage in the playoffs, particularly since it was the home team on bended knee in Games 2 and 3. The series was billed as an antidote to the Bulls-Knicks war games that preceded it, as a matchup of teams that depend on mind more than muscle, technique more than testosterone. And, indeed, in the first three games there were no serious takedowns or tussles. (There was one flare-up in Game 4 when Cleveland forward Danny Ferry was ejected in the first quarter for throwing a punch at Michael Jordan.)
But no one realized that the Bulls and the Cavs had similarly fragile psyches, vulnerable to letdowns, sudden turnabouts and what Chicago's backup center, Professor Will Perdue, called "total role reversal."
Then again, those sudden reversals have been a recurring theme throughout the Eastern playoffs. The Cavs lost Game 6 of the semifinals to the Boston Celtics by 31 points and then buried Boston 122-104 in Game 7 two days later. The Knicks battled the Bulls through six bloody games and 30 minutes of a seventh but then caved in completely and lost 110-81.
In the Eastern finals the Cavs, who should have been inspired by their first appearance in the NBA's final four since 1976, went down with hardly a whimper in Game 1,103-89; the Bulls fell behind by a mind-numbing 20-4 in Game 2 at Chicago Stadium and lost 107-81; and, impossible as it seems, the Cavs got off to an even worse start in their building in Game 3, trailing by 26-4 after eight minutes, and lost 105-96. What was going on here?
Here are three theories:
•There is no team in the NBA this season that truly believes in itself, one with that breezy, cocksure attitude that set apart, for example, the Detroit Pistons of a couple of years ago. Thus, this season's teams are all subject to self-doubt and letdown when an opponent makes a strong stand. The Celtics and Knicks, for all they achieved as Atlantic Division underdogs, didn't really believe they could win it all. And while the Cavs know their talent might be good enough to win a championship, they are unaccustomed to playing on such a well-lighted stage. Remember that at this time last year, having just completed a regular season plagued by injuries, they were plotting their strategy in the lottery. As for Chicago, well, it did win 67 games this season, and it is led by Jordan. But after seemingly getting out from under Jordan's shadow last year, the other Bulls have once again begun to subordinate their games to his.
•More than most teams, the Bulls and the Cavs key off one player, and when he is shut down, so is the whole operation. In Game 2, Jordan was brought to his knees by the twin demons of flu symptoms, which were in his throat, and Cleveland guard Craig Ehlo, who was in his face. Jordan missed his first six shots, and other Bulls like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, who should have stepped to the forefront, evidently thought they should "be like Mike." Said Chicago coach Phil Jackson, "Sometimes we feed off the energy of Michael far too much." Then, in Game 3, it was Cleveland's indispensable quarterback, Mark Price, who was kept in check, and the Cavs consequently sculled their feet and hung their heads. They did a lot better in Game 4 even though Price was limited to 30 minutes because of a stomach virus. He had only 13 points and two assists, but they still prevailed.
•Both teams thrive on emotion, which brings unpredictable results. They read the newspapers, respond to slights real and imagined, get fired up one day, depressed the next, seize the momentum for one game, lose it the next. That's not a surprising aspect of the frisky Bulls, of course, but what about the usually steady-as-they-go Cavs? Well, individually, they may be quiet on and off the court, but collectively they play with much emotion.
Take Game 2, for example. When Cleveland ran the Bulls into the ancient bowels of Chicago Stadium (page 60), perhaps it was simply responding to a basic principle of sport. To wit: When someone calls you a marshmallow, you must go out and toast them. The Chicago papers had referred to the Cavaliers by the m word (and other soft-centered words like cream puff) after their substandard effort in Game 1, and the Cleveland players, as they admitted later, were definitely sitting in their hotel rooms turning the pages. Anyway, the Cavs, like the Portland Trail Blazers in the West, draw much energy from believing themselves to be underappreciated and overcriticized.
The Bulls, meanwhile, were only pretending to take Cleveland seriously; after Game 1, no matter what they said to the contrary, they considered the Cavs to be a somewhat upscale version of the Miami Heat. And that was a big, big mistake. Before Game 2, Jordan walked into the locker room looking sick. As Jackson took in the unemotional pregame ambience, he thought to himself, We're in deep trouble.
And indeed they were. "This team deserved to be booed off the floor," Jackson said later, but he blew his chance to make a statement by not yanking his comatose starters in the first period. Sensing Jordan's weakness, the Cavs double-teamed him more than they had in the past, dispatching small forward Mike Sanders to help Ehlo, and Jordan reacted with confusion. On one occasion when the double team came at him, Jordan retreated almost to midcourt and then weaved his way forward again only to be picked clean by Ehlo. Jordan finished with six turnovers, just one fewer than his field goal total, and no one picked up the slack.
And so it was Chicago's turn to lie down on the couch. How could a team that had won a championship just one year earlier play that badly in a home playoff game? The Sy-BULLS one local writer called them in reference to their multiple personalities. Off Game 2, they could also have been the Invisi-BULLS or the Horri-BULLS.
Long-suffering Cleveland fans had a field day thumbing their noses at the post-Game 1 criticism of their team. One local bakery prepared a three-foot cream puff that bore the Bulls' insignia and a sign that read: NOW WHO'S THE CREAM PUFF! And minutes before the tip-off of Game 3 the best marsh-mallow scene in cinematic history appeared on the Coliseum's two huge TV screens—the one from Ghostbusters in which the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man tramples everything in its path. The crowd went wild, and some of the Bulls even glared angrily at the Chicago reporters, who had started all this marshmallow stuff.
There was only one problem: The Stay-Puft Man eventually got toasted, and so did the Cavs. And had they seen Jordan before the game—confident, relaxed, the picture of health—they might have seen it coming. His pregame conversation, as it usually does when he's in a talkative mood, touched on subjects far and wide. He agreed that his stubby, scrunched-up toenails, testaments to the imperfection of all men, even six-time NBA scoring champions, are quite possibly the world's ugliest. "They've been that way since I was young," said Jordan. "It's the beating they take." Then he admitted that finding the motivation to win it all was easier in last year's playoffs than it has been in recent weeks. "A team like Portland still has that hunger," said Jordan. "We have to come up with something to motivate us. It's not nearly as easy as we thought it was going to be." He also couldn't help but get a kick out of all the marshmallow and cream puff references. "Well, time for us to go eat some marshmallows," he said, an hour before game time. Right before tip-off, he pondered the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man on the screen and the angry reactions of his teammates back on the bench. "We're going to save the Chicago media," he said.
Pippen was feeling similarly motivated, and it was he who set the tone on Saturday. On three different occasions in the first period he grabbed a long rebound and began a fast break that led to either a field goal or two Chicago free throws. Even in the half-court offense, Pippen relentlessly attacked the basket, keeping Sanders so occupied that he couldn't consider doubling Jordan. Cavalier coach Lenny Wilkens is of two minds about doubling Jordan anyway, and his ambivalence is reflected in Cleveland's defense—some of Jordan's biggest-scoring games (a career high of 69 on March 28, 1990, six times over 50) have come at the expense of the Cavs. Jordan was on his way to a monster in Game 3, too, with 17 points in the first period, but he cooled off before coming to life again late in the third quarter. He hit three jumpers in a span of 1:36, all the while jawing at Ehlo.
"You never talked to me before," said Ehlo. "Why are you doing it now?"
"Hey, it's the playoffs, man," Jordan told him. "I've got to look out for myself."
Jordan finished with 36 points, nine assists and six rebounds. Just as significant was the defensive work he turned in on Price from time to time. The strategy kept Price from getting good three-point opportunities, as he had in Game 2, and he finished with 16 points 11 of them in the first period, and only three assists. More important, Jordan's size limited Price's ability to get the ball to center Brad Daugherty, who had murdered the Bulls with 28 points last Thursday. Daugherty had 18 on Saturday but only two in the first quarter. "With my size, and knowing the referees wouldn't call touchy fouls," said Jordan with typical candor, "I could take advantage."
Well, when the Game 3 psychoanalysis was in, all parties seemed to consider the first three games an aberration. "Both teams know how it feels now," said Price. "We'll come out and play better from the start on Monday." And Jackson said, "Now it'll level out and be contested all the way through."
Jackson's analysis was correct for Game 4, though the result wasn't what he had hoped for. His team looked too much like the Bulls of old, tending to stand around and watch Jordan, who needed 33 shots to get his 35 points. Chicago still held the home court advantage, but the defending champions certainly were looking like the Vulnera-BULLS.