Reaching for Greatness

Chicago beat Portland for its second straight NBA title, but do the Bulls belong among the league's alltime elite?
June 21, 1992

The Chicago Bulls concluded a year of living dangerously on Sunday evening in their dilapidated madhouse on Madison, using an unlikely east of characters to fashion an unlikely comeback against a most likely collection of victims, the Portland Trail Blazers. On many occasions during what seemed to be a death march of a postseason, the Bulls appeared ready to tumble into the abyss, but at no time were they teetering more precariously than at the outset of the fourth quarter in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Portland was leading 79-64, the customarily loud and proud Chicago Stadium crowd had all but given up, Michael Jordan was on the bench, and the game—and perhaps the season—was in the hands of the group that His Airness has often referred to as "my supporting cast."

No more than an hour later, however, the Bulls stood together on the scorer's table at the stadium, series MVP Jordan, Olympic teammate Scottie Pippen and all the Bobby Hansens and Stacey Kings waving to the crowd, hugging loved ones, swaying unrhythmically but enthusiastically to the dual accompaniments of music and champagne, and passing the NBA championship trophy down the line. Their series-clinching 97-93 victory over the Blazers had written in indelible ink a point that assistant coach Johnny Bach had made eight months ago, just before Chicago embarked on its quest to repeat. "Only the Bulls," said Bach, "can beat the Bulls."

Indeed, whenever Chicago had to win a game during its seemingly endless 22-game postseason, it went out and won it. Technically, of course, Game 6 was not a must win because the Bulls held a 3-2 lead going into it. But to have the series extended to a seventh game was a fate-tempting uncertainty that even this cocky group did not want to risk. Besides, with Olympic training camp beginning this Sunday in San Diego, Jordan's tee times were in peril.

Is that not, then, the definition of a great team—one that wins when it has to? A quick glance at the Chicago bench reveals a Will Perdue here and a Craig Hodges there, but with 67 victories during the regular season and a second straight championship (the Bulls are the third team in a row to repeat, succeeding the Los Angeles Lakers in 1988 and the Detroit Pistons in '90), doesn't Chicago deserve to be mentioned among the best ever, with, say, the 1971-72 Lakers or the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers?

"Let's just say they're a very good team with one great player," said Danny Ainge in a quiet Portland locker room after Game 6. That was a fair assessment.

"I'm still not sure the best team won the series," said one of Ainge's teammates, Buck Williams. Now, that was plainly ridiculous.

Led by their serene superstar, Clyde Drexler, the Blazers did earn points during the series for their unwavering friendliness and overall guy-next-door demeanor. Even when Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey and Cliff Robinson complained about the referees, as they did after Game 6, they sounded, at worst, like Eddie Haskell. At the same time, though, the Blazers did nothing to shed the image that has clung to them over the past few seasons. To wit: that they are a team with outstanding talent and an astounding capacity for self-destruction in the stretch because of nerves (too many) or brains (not enough).

Portland has lost late in the playoffs three consecutive years (the previous two defeats were to the Pistons in the '90 championship series and to the Lakers in the '91 Western Conference finals), and if nothing else, the Blazers' identity now seems clear—they're the Denver Broncos in tank tops. Portland's core personnel is young enough and healthy enough to return to the Finals—and Drexler says the Blazers will—but management might have to make some changes. As Ainge said after Game 6, "This loss will stick with us for a long time."

In the first three quarters on Sunday, Portland played near perfect basketball, which was not surprising. The Blazers felt little pressure, for after Portland's blowout loss at home in Game 5, Sunday's game had been all but conceded to the Bulls by everybody but the Blazers. The Bulls' pregame chatter, in fact, ran to parade routes and golf games. For the first time in the series, Porter took the ball hard to the basket, exploiting his physical advantage over both Bulls starter John Paxson and his backup, B.J. Armstrong, and Kersey (14 points, six rebounds, two steals in the first half) roamed the court at both ends like the Pippenesque free-lancer he's supposed to be.

Portland led 50-44 at intermission and 79-64 after three periods. As for the Bulls, Pippen seemed to be heading for another playoff migraine with a poor shooting performance—he was 4 for 12 through three quarters—and Jordan, who had blown two layups early in the third quarter and had another rejected by Drexler, was so leg-weary that he looked as if he were lugging two bags around Pebble Beach. So Chicago coach Phil Jackson decided he needed "to do something." Out for the fourth period marched the quintet of Armstrong, Hansen, King, Scott Williams and Pippen, the lone starter. (Did someone mention the '72 Lakers?) And what was Jordan thinking over on the bench? That a comeback was possible? "In my mind, frankly, no, I didn't think it was possible," he said.

Hansen got the rally started, and the crowd back into the game, with a three-pointer and a steal. The Trail Blazers feed on positive energy in their arena—well, maybe not in this series in which they lost two of three at home—but they also tend to get caught up in a frenzied tempo on the road. That's what happened on Sunday. Kersey committed a flagrant foul on King, who converted one of the free throws, and on the ensuing possession Pippen made a layup against a suddenly timid Portland defense to cut the lead to 79-70. "We were playing not to lose rather than to win," said Ainge later.

The Blazers got caught for a double dribble, were called for an offensive foul on an overaggressive pick, had a couple of shots blocked and heaved up a few others that would have been better left un-heaved. It was as if they were holding a menu of bad possessions and wanted to make sure they ordered all the entrees. Porter, a point guard with a strange tendency to dribble toward the sideline when he's in trouble, even kicked the ball out of bounds when he was pressured by King, who can't guard a safe when it's stationed more than five feet from the basket.

Worst of all was the performance of veteran Buck Williams. Twice while guarding King in the pivot he deliberately fell to the floor in attempts to draw an offensive foul. Neither effort would have earned a passing grade in the Bill Laimbeer School of Thespian Floppers, and the officials properly ignored Williams's dives. After the second one King glanced at Williams on the floor and then banked in a 14-foot jumper to cut Portland's lead to 81-78.

On it went. A well-rested Jordan returned with 8:36 to go, and Jackson eventually worked two other starters, Paxson and Horace Grant, back into the lineup. When Williams waited too long to make an outlet pass after picking up a loose ball, Jordan batted the ball out of his hands and stuck in a layup with 4:01 left to put Chicago ahead, 89-87, for the first time since early in the game.

Having called several timeouts to stem the comeback early in the period, Portland coach Rick Adelman used his last with 1:39 remaining. Thereafter he would not be able to gather his team to calm it down—assuming such a thing was possible.

A Drexler layup tied the score at 89-89, but Pippen put Chicago ahead for good with a 16-foot jump shot with 2:21 to go. It was all Jordan after that—16-foot jumper, baseline drive from the right side (that move included a two-step between dribbles that would have earned a whistle if this were a perfect world) and, finally, two clutch free throws with 11.8 seconds remaining. "Going into the series I thought Michael had 2,000 moves," said Drexler after the game. "I was wrong. He has 3,000."

Jordan and Pippen combined to score Chicago's final 19 points, which is what stars are supposed to do. But they never would have gotten the chance without the contributions of Armstrong, Hansen, King and Scott Williams—a.k.a. the Bench Brothers. Jordan's teammates were once known as the Jordanairies. On Sunday they were the Jordan-extraordinaries and were a major reason that Chicago was able to come from further back in the fourth quarter—15 points—than any team in Finals history.

Doubts about the Bulls, and even Jordan, lingered after a Game 4 foldaroo on June 10 in Portland, however. Chicago's performance in that game was similar to its Game 2 debacle, in which the Bulls had blown a 10-point lead in the final 4:30 and lost 115-104 in overtime. The Blazers rallied in the fourth game after an overly emotional Kersey gave Scott Williams three free throws (he made them all for an 80-74 advantage with 7:42 left) by compounding a personal foul with a flagrant foul. Perhaps Portland needed more such paroxysms of passion in the Finals, or perhaps it was just coincidence, but the Blazers dominated the Bulls down the stretch to prevail 93-88 and tie the series at 2-2. During the rally Adelman employed a small lineup that kept Buck Williams and Kevin Duckworth on the bench. (What's a Duck worth? In this series, only 9.3 points and 6.8 rebounds a game.)

Jordan didn't score during the last 10 minutes of Game 4, and afterward he unwisely mentioned that he had been winded because he had had to play extra minutes—his total was 44—because Pippen had gotten into foul trouble. A growing body of critics waits with a pair of forceps to pluck from the air Jordan's every statement, place it under a microscope and examine it for trace amounts of ego, vanity and self-righteousness. Was it a fact that Pippen's fourth foul with 4:55 to go in the third period threw off Jackson's substitution pattern, which is based partly on keeping Jordan or Pippen on the floor at all times? Absolutely. But, to some observers, Jordan seemed to be whining or complaining about Pippen.

Two words summed up the Bulls' attitude after Game 4: pissed off. That was Jackson's phrase as he contemplated the cold, hard fact that his team had controlled all but about 10 minutes of the first four games, yet found itself in a dogfight. "By all rights and purposes, the series should be over," he said.

It was difficult to discern if Jackson was playing one of his mind games, for he is not easily read. After all, this is a coach who registered in his Portland hotel under the name of his favorite Sioux warrior. (He did not want the name revealed.) This is a coach who spent the evening before Game 5 visiting a store for outdoorsmen and strolling through downtown Portland with his family, rather than staring bleary-eyed at game films. And this is a coach who wore ties to Games 1 and 2 hand-painted by Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia and who even exchanged notes with Garcia before the series started. (In the world-gets-curiouser-and-curiouser department, da Bulls and da Dead fly the same MGM charter plane from time to time.)

But, yes, Jackson seemed P.O.'d, as did Jordan, who echoed his coach's phrase and later touched once again upon the delicate subject of Pippen's delicate psyche. "Scottie was doubting himself in our series against New York and started losing confidence," said Jordan. "I think he's at the point now where maybe he is a little unsure of himself in certain games." Fact? Yes. Better left unsaid? Definitely.

Reports of the Bulls' state of mind drew bemused comments from most of the Blazers, a somewhat angry comment from Adelman and very little comment from Drexler, who, were he shot out of a cannon into a tub of ice water, might say something like, "It was a little exciting but nothing I didn't expect." Said Adelman, "If the Bulls can't finish a game, it's not my fault. [Actually, no one said it was.] I don't understand why you have to talk about the other team like it doesn't have the right to be there and win."

Said Buck Williams, "There is definitely an arrogance about the Bulls. They think they gave away the games we won." And that's the way the series went—the Bulls acted, the Blazers reacted.

Buck also promised "World War IV" (no one was sure what happened to WW III, but, hey, it's his analogy) for Game 5 last Friday. If that was the case, the Blazers made a slight tactical error: They packed popguns and lost 119-106. The first seven minutes decided the outcome and pointed out the crucial difference between the two teams: The Blazers don't have Jordan and Pippen, the Bulls do. They scored all but four of Chicago's first 23 points. They ranged all over the court, pulling up for jumpers one moment and posting up the next. On defense they clogged the middle on switches and stepped into passing lanes.

The game may well have been decided on two early plays. With the score tied 2-2, Jordan ran back on defense, forced a turnover on a two-on-one Blazer break, headed downcourt, took a pass from Pippen, pulled up and drilled a three-pointer. Minutes later, Pippen stole a pass (no surprise there, because the Bulls got 17 points off turnovers in the first quarter), dribbled downcourt and threw down a thunderous dunk over Drexler to put Chicago ahead 20-11. Portland pulled to within nine points late in the game, but this time the Bulls didn't falter.

Lost among the glowing stat lines of Jordan (46 points) and Pippen (24 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists) was another key to Game 5—and to the whole series. Grant had only six points and five rebounds, but Buck Williams, his power forward counterpart, also had only six points to go with seven rebounds, zero assists and zero steals. In the four games that followed Williams's strong Game 2 performance (19 points, 14 rebounds). Grant neutralized him. In Game 6, for example, Grant took only one shot (he made it) and got only five rebounds, but Williams had only seven points and eight rebounds, and played more like Uncle Buck than Buck at crunch time. "We wanted to let the two alligators cancel each other out," said Bach on Friday.

Two years ago Bach made a two-hour tape of Williams in action, presented it to Grant and challenged him to Be Like Buck. In other words, Bach told him, "low number of shots, high-yield, team play, challenge everything, be physical." That was the Williams model, and that is precisely what Grant has become.

As the final seconds ticked down in Game 5, the last one of the series to be played in Portland, Blazer fans had a chance to thank their heroes for a 57-win season and for having reached the Finals twice in three years. After all, this is a community that placed so many calls of protest to AT&T over a billboard of Pippen plugging the company's Olympic sponsorship that had gone up near the Coliseum two weeks ago that AT&T removed the sign. Last Friday, however, the Portland fans either sat on their hands or booed the Bulls. It was not good form.

Then again, who knows how the crowd at Chicago Stadium would have reacted had the Bulls not won. (Perhaps the costs of razing the 63-year-old building, which will take place after the 1993-94 season to make way for a new arena across the street, would have been saved.) But win it they did, and the fans were ecstatic.

Long after the final buzzer most of the crowd of 18,676 was still hanging around the stadium. When Jackson heard this, he led his players back onto the floor, where they remained for at least 30 minutes, the focus of a raucous but entirely civilized party. (Regrettably, the same cannot be said for other supposed celebrants in various parts of the city. As of Monday afternoon Chicago police had made more than 1,000 arrests on charges including arson, burglary, theft and disorderly conduct. Scores of police suffered minor injuries, and two civilians were badly burned.)

Jordan, who had cried uncontrollably last year after winning his first title, played the role of pied piper this time, leading a free-form snake dance all over the floor while holding aloft the championship trophy. After he climbed onto the scorer's table, Jordan hollered to a friend, wriggled his hands together to approximate a golf grip and held up eight fingers. That was Monday's tee time.

Later, down in the bowels of the stadium, Jackson pondered what had been a long and difficult season, particularly the final seven weeks of playoff tension, turbulence and, ultimately, triumph. "Last year it was a honeymoon," said Jackson. "This year it was an odyssey."

PHOTOJOHN W. McDONOUGHIn their personal duel, Jordan outscored Drexler by 11.0 points a game. PHOTOBILL SMITHWhen Chicago began its rally on Sunday, Jordan was just an enthusiastic spectator... PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS...as the Blazers made error after error, none more flagrant than this key foul of King. PHOTONATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOSJordan's layup off a steal late in Game 6 gave Chicago its first lead since the early going. PHOTOMANNY MILLANIf looks could kill: Robinson (3), Porter (30) and Duckworth with referee Ed T. Rush. PHOTONATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOSThirty minutes after Game 6, Jordan and the Bulls returned to celebrate with their fans. PHOTOBILL SMITHJackson was one spent Deadhead by the time he finally got to turn his eyes on the prize.

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)