On the Edge

In the NBA championship series—a.k.a. the Finals From Hell—the Bulls bungled their way to a tenuous 2-1 lead over the Trail Blazers
June 14, 1992

It was in game 3 that the Chicago Bulls seized control of last year's NBA Finals, taking a 2-1 lead after an exquisitely played 104-96 overtime win against the Los Angeles Lakers. On Sunday a 94-84 defeat of the Trail Blazers in Portland gave the Bulls another 2-1 lead, yet Chicago's grasp on this championship series seemed less secure. Not, mind you, because the Blazers presented such formidable opposition in the first three games, but because the series has been so unevenly played, with long stretches of bafflingly poor execution by both teams.

Indeed, the operative word of the Finals From Hell was lacking. Everyone was lacking something at one time or another, be it energy, focus, intelligence or that old chalkboard favorite, "proper floor spacing." Going in, no one knew exactly what to expect in this showdown of evenly matched athletes, but no one was ready for this. Ladies and gentlemen, it's the Orlando Magic versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

As for the Michael and Clyde All-World shooting-guard subplot, it was advantage Chicago through Game 3. Except for one atypical loss of composure down the stretch in Game 2, Michael Jordan's performance had been, by and large, Jordanesque. But the Blazers' Clyde Drexler, like his cast of co-performers on both teams, had experienced more ups and downs than a George Bush popularity poll. Drexler put together a 32-point, nine-rebound stat line on Sunday that was, for all its apparent luster, deceiving, for at no time did he take over the game and make the kind of strong one-on-one statement that the Finals demand.

Then again, perhaps Drexler was demoralized when he looked around and saw that he was home alone. Portland point guard Terry Porter, who ran around and through both the Phoenix Suns' Kevin Johnson and the Utah Jazz's John Stockton in the Blazers' two previous playoff series, could not find a path to the hoop in the first three games of this one, despite the fact that he enjoyed a physical advantage over his Chicago counterpart, John Paxson. Porter took only two shots and had only two assists in the second half of Sunday's game. Buck Williams, so strong and so vital (19 points, 14 rebounds) in Portland's 115-104 win last Friday in Game 2, was 1 for 5 from the floor in Game 3. Jerome Kersey and reserves Cliff Robinson and Danny Ainge were a danger to anyone sitting around, but not in, the basket. Collectively, they made only 10 of 36 shots.

Sunday's game was such a nightmare for the Blazers that they had to endure the nauseating tableau of overweight Stacey King racking up six points and getting three rebounds in a rare crunch-time appearance for Chicago. (Starting center Bill Cartwright had fouled out early in the fourth period.) Two days earlier a mimeographed sheet advertising the bogus Stacey King Basketball Camp for White Players over 250 Pounds had circulated around the Bulls' locker room. Yes, bear in mind, Blazers, that in this dizzy, turn-about series, yesterday's joke can become tomorrow's hero.

Still, Game 3 was a telling one for the Trail Blazers, who should have been sky-high after their performance in Game 2 but were instead disorganized and unaggressive, characteristics they also demonstrated in losing Game 1 at Chicago Stadium by a score of 122-89. NBA fans have a right to expect championship-caliber basketball in June, but for the most part they haven't gotten it this year. What's going on? Consider:

•Chicago has raised defense to a fine art, and that sometimes makes for less than great basketball. (See NBA champion Detroit Pistons in 1988-89 and '89-90.) Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant are all quick enough to get to the middle to clog up a Porter penetration or to obstruct an outside jumper by Kersey. The Bulls are less vulnerable to mismatches than any other team—so what if Grant, their power forward, gets caught out front on a quick guard, or if Pippen, the small forward, has to guard a center—because they make quick rotations that keep their double-teaming effective.

In addition, Chicago did an excellent job of stopping Portland's vaunted transition game. Whenever Paxson walks on the floor, assistant coach Johnny Bach has instructed Paxson to "T.A." ("tear ass") back upcourt as soon as the Bulls shoot and, if possible, to "take a teammate with you." Influenced by Paxson's hustling, one of the gazelles generally arrives soon afterward.

•The Blazers were, as they claimed almost to a man, tired in Game 3. That sounds like a lame excuse, but it's one worth examining. Games 1 and 2 were played on the nights of June 3 and June 5 in Chicago, which left only one day before Sunday's Game 3 half a continent away. The more logical Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday set was not considered, because NBC wants its Thursday prime-time programming left intact. Hence this could be the first championship series in which Sam Malone's bar played a role.

Friday's overtime win was exhausting for the Blazers, who flew home right after the game and worked out on Saturday. (It was an exhausting weekend, too, for the 1,500 fans who greeted the Trail Blazers' plane when it arrived in Portland at 3:30 a.m. Saturday.) Chicago, by contrast, took a noon flight on Saturday. And when coach Phil Jackson noticed that his players were far more interested in sleeping than in watching game films on the plane, he called off a scheduled practice in Portland. "We were very tired yesterday, and we played tired today," said Blazer coach Rick Adelman on Sunday. He wasn't whining; he was stating a fact. Maybe next time he will make R&R a priority.

Portland had seemed ready to play at the outset of Game 1, building a 17-9 lead, when, suddenly, Jordan turned himself into a version of teammate Craig Hodges on All-Star weekend, albeit minus the ball rack and music. Jordan converted six three-point shots—Air Mail—in the first 24 minutes to propel Chicago to a 66-51 half time lead from which Portland never recovered. Last year's Finals produced a Jordan replay for the ages, the up-on-one-side-around-on-the-other layup he made in Game 2 against the Lakers, and so did Game 1 this season. This time it was the shrug. Heading upcourt late in the second quarter, after having converted the last of those six first-half three-pointers, Jordan looked at Magic Johnson, who was broadcasting the game for NBC, turned his palms upward, shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.

Jordan's detractors undoubtedly read the gesture as calculated arrogance, but he later said that it was spontaneous and that he simply meant to convey an I-can't-believe-this-either feeling. Nor was the gesture meant to show up Drexler, who has set the art of trash-talking back about 30 years. Among the spicy woofings he hurled at Jordan during Jordan's record 35-point first-half outburst (the Lakers' Elgin Baylor had the previous championship series one-half high of 33 points in 1962) were, "Aren't you going to miss?" and "Nice shot" and "Good play."

On the other hand, in comparing his abilities with Drexler's before the Finals began, Jordan used an interesting choice of words at one juncture: "Clyde's a better three-point shooter than I choose to be." Perhaps Jordan was not merely "taking what the defense" gave him, as he claimed.

Actually, the first three minutes of the third period, when Jordan didn't score at all, were much more important to the Bulls' mental health than was Jordan's play in the first half. He assisted on baskets by Paxson, Cartwright, Pippen and Paxson again, as a 15-point Chicago half-time lead grew and grew, and the Blazers, no matter what they later said to the contrary, simply gave up. Pippen was brilliant after intermission (he finished one rebound short of a triple double), and thus Jordan's performance (39 points, 11 assists) was not the only topic of conversation in the locker room. That's important, for Pippen is still inflicted by, as one Bulls insider puts it, "the green-eyed monster." After Game 1 of Chicago's previous playoff series, against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Jordan turned down a request from TNT for a postgame interview. When Pippen was asked to come in his stead, he declined. "You wanted Michael, not me," he said. That may be Pippen's epitaph.

However, the weight of Jordan's performance obviously fell most heavily on the shoulders of Drexler. His play in Game 1, in which he made only 5 of 14 shots and was invisible on defense, showed very little Glide and a lot of hide. No one could blame him for all of Jordan's three-pointers, but even Jordan's midrange jumpers—of his 16 field goals, only two were scored inside—were rarely contested. Drexler said that he had put a hand in Jordan's face "most of the time," but he didn't sound as if he believed himself. "Michael jumps away from the defender a lot, so it looks like he's taking open shots," said Drexler. Oh.

Ainge, the only Blazer with a championship ring, supplied some perspective. He was a Celtic in 1985, when Boston pounded the Lakers 148-114 in Game 1 of the Finals—the famed Memorial Day Massacre. But then the Celts lost Game 2 and, ultimately, the series. Said Ainge, "This isn't the Tour de France. We don't start out Game 2 down 33 points."

And, oh, how the Blazers loved it when the Bulls beat themselves down the stretch in Game 2, even though Portland was without Drexler, who had fouled out, for the final 4½ minutes. Years from now thousands of Trail Blazer fans will relate the tale of the famous Jordan technical foul that helped cost Chicago the game. Jordan committed a stupid reaching foul on Porter with 4:25 left in regulation, and then even more stupidly mouthed off to referee Jess Kersey, who assessed the T Jordan claims he only said, "That was a——call." Kersey, in keeping with league policy, would not comment.

But no matter how Portland fans may mythologize it, Jordan's indiscretion had relatively little effect on this game. After Porter's three free throws cut Chicago's lead to 92-85, Cartwright converted a jumper that made the score 94-85 with 4:09 to go. The Bulls had only to execute on a few possessions to seal the win. They didn't. They stood around, dribbling in place until the shot clock demanded an urgent heave. Chicago assistant coach Tex Winter says the most inviolate principle of his triangle offense is that the man with the ball must hit the first man who is open. That's precisely what the Bulls, particularly Jordan and Pippen, often don't do, and what they didn't do late in Game 2. Jordan might be forgiven, because something good usually happens when he has the ball, but Pippen needs some serious lessons in half-court basketball.

Then again, so do the Blazers, whose Game 2 effort can be criticized on all fronts except heart. Consider the main characters. Center Kevin Duckworth, this postseason's designated unhappy camper, has spent more time with a road atlas than with the Portland playbook, so sure is he that a trade is forthcoming. He was a brooding nonfactor in Game 1 and most of Game 2. But with 13 seconds remaining in regulation time he came off a pick-and-roll (actually it was more of a pick-and-flare; Duck invariably goes to a spot and faces the basket rather than rolls toward it) and made the jump shot that tied the game at 97.

Or take Porter. Not only did he not get an assist for the first 47:46 of the game, but he also was responsible for Drexler's sixth foul. It occurred when Pippen intercepted Porter's lazy pass and Drexler wound up reaching in to prevent a breakaway. Yet Porter fed Duckworth the pass that led to the tying basket and then made a key three-pointer with 1:31 left in overtime to put Portland ahead 108-102.

Or take Ainge, whose efforts at securing a multiyear contract from the Blazers early in the season were turned away by management. He upped his free-agent market value with a heroic overtime performance in Game 2 that included nine points, one assist and several successful scrambles for loose balls. Drexler even said jokingly, "I might have to ask Coach to get my playing time back."

No, Clyde, you'll never have to do that. But judging from the results of Game 3, you should take a step forward in the assertiveness department and, while you're at it, grab a couple of teammates by the scruff of the neck and bring them with you. There was still time after Sunday night to save the series—for both the Blazers and the fans who have had to endure it.

PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHIn Game 3 most of the Trail Blazers' shots went clang instead of swish. PHOTOBILL SMITHGame 1 tickled Pippen (above left) and Scott Williams, but Air Mail didn't deliver Game 2. PHOTOMANNY MILLAN[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL SMITHPippen swooped to within one rebound of a triple double in the Bulls' Game 1 runaway. PHOTOMANNY MILLANA determined Grant helped see to it that Buck Williams stayed in the background in Game 1. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHTry as he might on Sunday, Ainge (9) could not duplicate his Game 2 heroics in overtime.

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)