Michael Jordan, furious over the attention directed toward his trip to an Atlantic City casino early last week, had stopped talking to the media off the court. But on the court on Monday afternoon the Knicks couldn't shut him up. Jordan scored 54 points and made six three-pointers as the Chicago Bulls evened the Eastern Conference finals at two wins apiece with a 105-95 victory over New York.
The world didn't know what Jordan was thinking after his 18-of-30 shooting performance at the Madhouse on Madison, but it was obvious what was running through the Knicks' minds: He's Michael Jordan, and we're not.
Only once did the Knicks allow Jordan to get to the basket for a layup, but he still hit every variety of jump shot known to man, each one a dagger deep into New York's exaggerated sense of bravado. After handling Jordan & Co. with relative ease in Games 1 and 2 at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks let the Bulls off the canvas in Saturday's Game 3 and then on Monday played the role of Jordan's personal indoor carpet—all in all, a discouraging Memorial Day weekend in Chicago for the New Yorkers.
Perhaps Chicago's 103-83 rout in Game 3 was to be expected. After all, the Bulls were virtually shamed into extending maximum effort because, as Knick coach Pal Riley colorfully put it, they had been "hung by their thumbs in the city square" after their teamwide failure in Gotham. Bull forward Horace Grant had to prove that a sprained right ankle wouldn't take him completely out of the series. Dream Teamer Scottie Pippen had to prove (again) that he wouldn't fold up like a cheap umbrella in pressure situations. Guard John Paxson had to prove that he wasn't invisible, and Jordan had to prove that he could once again inspire his teammates as well as he could double down in Atlantic City.
But Monday's loss might have been more discouraging for the Knicks because, Jordan's brilliance notwithstanding, they were in position to win. Jordan was gassed and in foul trouble down the stretch but still found the energy to make a huge 15-foot jump shot with 1:36 left. The basket gave the teetering Bulls a 99-90 edge that sealed the win and sent the two teams back to New York for Game 5 on Wednesday.
Chicago got itself back in the series by dominating Game 3. The Knicks still came out for that game with attitude—hey, these guys go to church with attitude—as evidenced by forward Charles Smith, who ignored Jordan's offer of a pregame handshake, a page out of the Bill Laimbeer book of diplomacy. But what they didn't come out with was an answer to Chicago's trapping defense, which was so aggressive that the Bulls double-teamed the ball immediately after New York got the opening tip. The other significant factors were the solid all-around play of Pippen and the perimeter shooting of Paxson, who, like Macaulay Culkin, had been utterly lost in New York.
It is a simple fact that in the playoffs even Jordan needs teammates to hit open jumpers for the Bulls to succeed. Don't forget that Paxson, a robotic but deadly shooter, was so effective during the Bulls" first title run that he was doing Late Night with David Letterman back in the summer of '91. In Game 3, Paxson converted five of his seven field goal attempts for 14 points.
Pippen, meanwhile, was all over the court, his versatility compensating for Jordan's woeful three-for-18 shooting on Saturday and complementing Jordan on Monday. Though the Knicks won't admit it publicly, they have clearly directed their psychological artillery at Pippen, believing, as the Detroit Pistons did in earlier such Eastern Conference set-tos, that he, unlike Jordan, is vulnerable to taunts and other forms of mental pressure. It finally got to Pippen in the fourth period of Game 2 when he lost his head after being whistled for a double dribble, and he was tossed by referee Billy Oakes, who minutes later ejected Knick guard Greg Anthony for committing a flagrant foul on Jordan. By that time Pippen had had his fill of the derogatory SKAAH-tee! SKAAH-tee! jeers of the Garden crowd.
A major factor, however, in Games 3 and 4 was the Bulls' defensive pressure, which forced 37 turnovers in the two games and, more important, kept Patrick Ewing (45 points) from getting good post position inside, as he had done for long stretches of Games 1 and 2.
Chicago's tenacity eventually frustrated New York, whose collective inclination in any event strays somewhat from the path of Gandhi. The key figure was guard John Starks, who seems able to keep his head when the Knicks are playing well but frequently misplaces it when they're not. So composed and statesmanlike had Starks been in the Garden that in the fourth period of Game 2, while out of the game, he actually summoned veteran guard Rolando Blackman to the sideline and imparted some advice. At the start of this season the only advice Starks could have given Blackman was about the interstate highways in Starks's native Oklahoma; even then Blackman might have preferred a map. Anyway, Starks warmed up on Saturday by yammering periodically at Pippen, and then, early in the fourth period, he took on Jordan. Starks later said his jawing at Jordan was precipitated by a Jordan elbow—"When you're a man, you can't let him do that," he recited from page 1 of the macho code—but it appeared to begin when Starks swatted at the ball and hit Jordan instead. Jordan walked toward Starks, Starks walked toward Jordan, and there was some shoving. Each was assessed a technical, and the matter appeared over.
Then, almost immediately, Starks went off again. "You wanna go, Mike?" he said, charging after Jordan. "You wanna go?" That's when Starks earned his second technical, an automatic ejection.
As a matter of fact, John, Jordan was in a mood to go. Though he had repeatedly set up his teammates—he finished with a game-high 11 assists—Jordan's poor shooting in Game 3 continued a series trend (he was 22 for 59 in Games 1 and 2), and he did appear to be frustrated. Jordan, in fact, had been so angry about Anthony's flagrant foul in Game 2 that he later issued a back-alley challenge in curiously sugarcoated words. "If I ever catch him outside this [arena], I will certainly pay my dues to him," he said. But most of all, Jordan had spent the prior 48 hours fuming over the media's treatment of his trip to an Atlantic City casino between Games 1 and 2.
At week's end it was still not clear whether The New York Times had erred in its May 27 report that Jordan was spotted at Bally's Grand casino as late as 2:30 a.m. on May 25. That was the morning of Game 2. Tipoff time was 8 p.m. Jordan swore that he left the casino at 11 p.m. and was back in his room at The Plaza by 1 a.m., and he threatened to "lay a lawsuit" on anyone who said otherwise.
Like most stories at major sporting events, Bally'sgate took on a life of its own, deservedly or not. The network news shows even picked it up. Naturally the New York tabloids took their shots (HIT ME! headlined the New York Post). Jordan answered the questions concerning his whereabouts at an unruly press gathering, which, inevitably, turned ugly. This one, which look place at the Bulls' suburban practice facility last Thursday, did so when a persistent Chicago television news reporter asked Jordan insulting questions: Is this the way you normally prepare for a playoff game? And, do you go to Joliet [a Chicago suburb where gambling is legal] the day before games? When the reporter brought up the name of James (Slim) Bouler, the convicted drug trafficker whom Jordan was forced to admit he had paid $57,000 in gambling debts to last year, and asked Jordan if his "gambling problem" was "escalating," Jordan made an angry exit.
Is it news if Jordan goes to a casino? Well, anything Jordan does during the playoffs (or any other time) is news. But was it wrong for him to go? That's a different question. Actually, the majority of media types sided with Jordan on this issue. But because of the sheer number of reporters present and the hostile manner in which some of the questions were asked at Thursday's impromptu press conference, Jordan could rightfully conclude that he was under attack.
At some point Jordan, or any superstar, must be cut some slack. He was at a legal gambling establishment, not in a floating crap game down on the waterfront. He was with his father and a few friends, not the James Gang and John Dillinger. He was not drinking alcohol (he almost never does in public). He knows his body and his limitations as well as any athlete.
Jordan docs appear to enjoy the juice that he gets from gambling, and if some people consider that a character flaw, well, so be it. But what if he had been spotted at, say, Manhattan's Carnegie Deli at 4 a.m., chowing down a mountain of pastrami? That would've been far worse for his health but, had it been reported at all, would certainly not have been accompanied by the sort of moral outrage that was sparked by his foray to Bally's. If Jordan has a serious gambling problem, a la Pete Rose, then that would be a major news story. But so far no one has proved that he does. (And don't think the NBA hasn't looked into it.)
The other unfortunate aspect of Bally'sgate is that it devalued the New York defense in Game 2, suggesting as it did that Jordan's nocturnal habits were the cause of his poor shooting. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Knicks have been rightly compared with the Piston championship teams of 1989 and '90 because of their chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, but their defense is clearly superior to Detroit's in at least three respects:
First, New York's ability to both clog the lane to prevent drives and then recover and challenge shots on the perimeter astounded the Bulls in Games 1 and 2. Second, New York defends against the high pick-and-roll aggressively and scientifically. That is, they always double-team the dribbler but also rotate and recover in order to prevent the dribbler from easily sighting an open man. Finally, Ewing and Oakley close up driving space better than any frontcourt twosome in the league. (The Knicks believe that the officials protect Jordan. Nonetheless, they have refused to concede him safe passage, making sure he has been treated roughly whenever he has driven to the basket.)
But the Knicks could not rediscover that defensive intensity in Game 3. And MJ's magic made it moot in Game 4. Jordan has apparently decided to pay his dues on the court, and in New York the Knicks had better have an answer.