To those observers who felt that the defending champion Chicago Bulls would coast through the NBA playoffs, da Bulls were da pits. In its 16 playoff games that preceded the championship series opener against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday, Chicago lost five times. Compare that with the regular season, when Bulls loss number 5 came in game number 29. Michael Jordan and his supporting cast seemed ready to fold at several points against both the New York Knicks, in the second round of the playoffs, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the Eastern Conference final. Was it a sudden loss of will, a succumbing to pressure or a combination of the two that had affected the Bulls?
"Well, whatever it was, here we are again," said Jordan last Friday after he scored 16 points in the fourth period of a 99-94 Game 6 victory over Cleveland that clinched a spot for Chicago in the Finals for the second straight year.
The Bulls' opponents this time are the wonderfully talented and hungry-for-a-title Trail Blazers. Logic says that because Chicago had to negotiate seven hard games with the Knicks and another six with the Cavs, its chances of repeating are not good against the NBA's deepest team. But playoff basketball is not always logical. And for all the toil and trouble that the Bulls have endured since May 5, when the Knicks planted the seeds of doubt by upsetting Chicago 94-89 in Game 1 of the second round, it is necessary to remember two facts that have framed the Bulls' season:
•First, at no point was Chicago a great team; rather, it was—and still is—a very good team with a terrific record. Only three NBA teams have had regular-season marks better than the Bulls' 67-15 this year, but is it fair to compare this Chicago team, led by Jordan and Scottie Pippen, to the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers (69-13) of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich? Hardly. Or to the '66-67 Philadelphia 76ers (68-13) of Chamberlain, Luke Jackson, Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham? No way. These Bulls do, perhaps, stack up well against the '72-73 Boston Celtics (68-14) of John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White, but bear in mind that those Celtics did not make it to the Finals. When the Bulls remember that their team is composed of one true great (Jordan), one sometimes great (Pippen) and a collection of role players, they are successful. But when they play without effort, as they did in Game 2 of the series against Cleveland (a 107-81 defeat), their talent is not enough to get them by.
•Second, Chicago ended the series against the Cavaliers in championship form. Playing in Richfield Coliseum, one of the league's loudest and most hostile environments, Jordan's supporting cast propped up the Bulls for the first three quarters as Jordan, out of rhythm and swarmed by an aggressive Cavalier defense, made only five of 20 shots. But with the game on the line in the fourth period, Jordan took over, and his teammates were content to play tough defense, get him the ball and applaud his efforts. That is a formula that could win Chicago another championship—everyone starts, Jordan finishes.
These two factors don't explain everything, of course. But the gap between the Bulls of winter and the Bulls of late spring is not as great as one might think.
Still, how does one explain Chicago's complete dominance of the regular season? The Bulls never lost more than two games in a row—that was quite an accomplishment, even in what was a weak year in the East—and the next-best records were Portland's and Cleveland's 57-25. By way of explanation, Bulls coach Phil Jackson says, "This is a team that simply loves to compete. I'm convinced that's what sets us apart. We have guys that maybe just like to lose a little less than everybody else." Simple, but true. On a cold February night in Detroit or Minnesota or Boston, other players might take the evening off. But not Jordan. And that attitude influences Pippen, who in turn influences Horace Grant, and so on. Then, too, Chicago enjoyed an almost injury-free season; starters Jordan, Pippen, Grant and John Paxson missed only six games among them.
That the Bulls finished 67-15 was surprising in many ways. Partly because of the revelations in Sam Smith's best-selling The Jordan Rules and partly because of a natural maturity, Chicago learned to keep its family tensions under wraps this season, but that didn't mean such tensions didn't exist. At times old resentments about Jordan's hogging the limelight surfaced. At times there was dissatisfaction with the play of starting center Bill Cartwright, who did not have a good season. At times it was a struggle to coax consistent performances out of the second unit, and some of the reserves, particularly backup point guard B.J. Armstrong, did not react well to being the targets of criticism. After Game 4 of the series against Cleveland, both Jackson and Jordan mildly knocked the play of the bench, and Armstrong took exception. "I totally disagree," he said. "If Phil and Michael want to point to the bench, then I think it's something that needs to be talked about in-house instead of going to the media." That was not anything new, merely a more public variation on an old theme.
Says one Bulls insider who desires anonymity, "I guarantee you this: For all our success, Phil had a helluva harder time coaching this year's team, smoothing egos and settling problems and things like that, than he did last year's."
None of Chicago's internal disagreements were particularly serious. But neither was this a team that steamed into the postseason as a balanced, all-hands-pulling-together machine, as most observers believed it to be.
And what about the prospects for the postseason? Well, first of all, it was only five years ago that the big story line at the beginning of each NBA season was how difficult it was to repeat as champion. But after the Lakers did it in '88 and the Detroit Pistons did it in '90, repeating suddenly seemed easy. It isn't. Before the playoffs began, Jackson received a call from Bill Fitch, his old friend and mentor, who was then coach of the New Jersey Nets. "No matter what you accomplished in the regular season, I guarantee you this will be hard," said Fitch, who won a title with the Celtics in 1981 but could not repeat in '82 despite having a slightly better regular-season record. "Having pressure on you to do nothing less than win it all is extremely difficult. Make sure your team understands that."
And make no mistake about it, the Bulls have felt pressure in the playoffs, with the possible exception of the initial, three-game series against the Miami Heat, which Chicago swept. Some Bulls began to resent the constant second-guessing that comes with being the favorite. Not Jordan, who loves the spotlight, but certainly Pippen, no fan of the media to begin with. In terms of maturity and experience, this Chicago team does not compare well with the champions of recent vintage, the Pistons, the Lakers and the Celtics.
Couple that with the fact that it's harder to get motivated the second time around, and it's small wonder that Chicago has been plagued with uncertain and lackluster performances in the playoffs. Moreover, the Bulls have lacked the strong focus they had in last year's postseason. "Our entire motivation then was to beat Detroit," says Paxson. "It carried us through the early rounds, and when we got to the Pistons, there was no way they were going to beat us. We haven't had that type of feeling this year." So as a rallying point the Bulls seized eagerly on the punches that the Cavaliers' Danny Ferry-threw at Jordan in Game 4 of the Chicago-Cleveland series. When Bulls reserve Stacey King took down Ferry in the final minutes of Game 5, he was not "going for the ball," as he, Jackson and other Bulls claimed; he was clearly going after Ferry, an unlikely villain but a villain nevertheless. (Both Ferry and King were fined $5,000 for the separate incidents, which was ridiculous; Ferry's punches clearly came in the heal of the action, but King's takedown was dangerous and deserving of suspension.) It will be much easier for the Bulls to focus on such physical Blazer players as Jerome Kersey (page 27), Buck Williams, Kevin Duckworth, Cliff Robinson and Danny Ainge.
And then there is the matter of style. It's not so much that the Bulls do not know how to play the slower, more physical brand of playoff basketball—they did it in last year's sweep of the Pistons, after all—but that they aren't really inclined to do it, physically, mentally and tactically. Chicago's half-court triangle offense, an old idea given new life last year, has taken on a tired, predictable aspect.
At the other end of the court, the various injuries to wrist, ankle and back suffered by Pippen in the early stages of the Knick series, combined with a somewhat weakened Jordan (flu), forced Jackson to pull back his defense more than he wanted to against New York and Cleveland. The Bulls are not a full-throttle transition team, like the Blazers; their strength lies in opening up the game with defensive intensity, creating scoring opportunities ("run-outs," in their terminology) by trapping, double-teaming and, as assistant coach and defensive specialist Johnny Bach puts it, "flying around and creating havoc." Flying around will most likely return against wide-open Portland, which is more susceptible to pressure than some of Chicago's previous opponents were.
Finally, a great deal of credit must be given to the Bulls' opponents. Consider Chicago's postseason path to the Eastern title in 1991, what Bach called "the beautiful, smooth road": The Bulls swept a terrible Knick team in the first round, knocked oft' the disorganized Philadelphia 76ers 4-1 in the second and swept the plummeting Pistons in the conference finals. This year? Once Chicago got by Miami, it faced hungry teams coached, not incidentally, by two masters of preparation, the Knicks' Pat Riley and the Cavs' Fenny Wilkens. Whatever happens in the Finals, Chicago knows that next season it will face two solid conference rivals, Cleveland and New York.
Still, not all of the Bulls' struggles over the last month can be explained away. Jackson was surprised that Chicago lost its confidence and poise at times, a malady that has hurt the Trail Blazers in the past. And it is no small matter when an All-Star like Pippen is still somewhat baffled by his role in the half-court offense months after it should have become clear. After his desultory second-half performance (three shots, zero points) in Game 4 of the Cleveland series, Pippen said, "I just didn't get the opportunities. I guess there were other guys out on the court that were more important." To which a perplexed Jackson replied, "I don't know why Scottie took so few shots. He's got to look for shots. They don't necessarily come to him."
In truth, Pippen is only marginally effective when the defense is set up and waiting for him. But that shouldn't be a problem in an open-court series against the Blazers. "Portland's upbeat tempo will get us flowing again," said reserve forward Cliff Levingston last weekend, "and that's just what we need."
Based on their on-again, off-again performance in the Eastern portion of the postseason, the word underdog was bouncing lightly off the walls of the Bulls" locker room last Friday night. Jordan even mentioned it and then was asked if he really believed it.
"Well, no, I don't think we're underdogs," he said with a smile. "But it might help if you called us that."