By now the Chicago Bulls' status as the most glamorous team in
all of sports should be unquestioned. Dennis Rodman is a
best-selling author--and by the way, is there any term in
American culture that has been more devalued?--who, when he
slips into something slinky and applies his mascara and lipstick
just so, looks less like a power forward than he does like Diana
Ross on steroids. Michael Jordan has such star power that film
critic and fervent Bulls fan Gene Siskel actually reviews his
highlight videos (he gives Jordan's latest a thumbs-up). The
glitz even rubs off on the Bulls' lesser lights. Last week
third-string center John Salley was surrounded by reporters who
questioned him about his acting technique in the new Whoopi
Goldberg movie, Eddie, as if Salley were the young Brando
It is easy in this atmosphere to forget why the Bulls (who won a
record 72 games in the regular season) are so clearly the best
team in the league and could make short work of the Seattle
SuperSonics in the NBA Finals that were scheduled to begin on
Wednesday in Chicago. As hyped and hip as the Bulls may be, they
are at their core an old-fashioned team whose success is built
on that most basic and traditional of concepts: unyielding
defense. No one knows this better than the Bulls themselves,
which may be why guard Ron Harper smiled slyly when he was asked
during the Eastern Conference finals against the Orlando Magic
about Chicago's defensive success. "Defense," he said, "is our
Not exactly--Chicago did place three players (Jordan, Rodman and
forward Scottie Pippen) on the NBA All-Defensive squad--but the
Bulls' defensive prowess often gets short shrift because of
their other, more spectacular attributes. It is not well known,
for instance, that Chicago tied for second in the league in
fewest points allowed (92.9 per game) during the regular season.
They trailed the Cleveland Cavaliers (88.5), who really
shouldn't count because their defense consisted largely of
slowing the game to the pace of a tortoise with a pulled
hamstring. But in the playoffs the Bulls' defense has come out
of the closet. Entering the Finals they had allowed a measly
85.7 points per game in their 12 postseason games, and they had
given up more than 100 points only twice. It took overtime to
bring one such lapse, a 102-99 Eastern Conference semifinal
victory by the New York Knicks in Chicago's only loss of the
playoffs. "Our offensive execution has been up and down in the
postseason," says Jordan. "Our shooting has been up and down.
But our defense has never deserted us."
Of course, the Bulls will find that attacking the Seattle
defense game after game is not a Sunday stroll either. (The
teams split their two regular-season meetings, each winning at
home.) The Sonics, led by their point guard, Defensive Player of
the Year Gary Payton, were first in the league in turnovers
forced (18.5 per game) and are better known for their swarming,
trapping defense than Chicago is. But heading into the Finals,
the best defense in the postseason has belonged to Chicago. The
most visible sign of the Bulls' dominance is how they have been
able to turn up the pressure seemingly at will, as if they
flipped some invisible switch from simmer to boil. When New York
proved pesky in the first two playoff games against the Bulls,
Chicago smothered the Knicks in the fourth quarters of both
games. In Game 3 of the conference finals, the Bulls limited the
high-scoring Magic to 10 points in the final period of an 86-67
victory. And the way Chicago pressured poor Orlando into 12
second-half turnovers to wipe out an 18-point third-quarter
deficit in Game 2 of that series, a 93-88 Bulls win, was almost
June 9, 1996
"Their defense is what they use to cut your heart out," says
Seattle scout Brendan Malone, who coached the Toronto Raptors
this season before signing on with the Sonics for the playoffs.
"That's what they did to Orlando, and it's what they're going to
try to do to us. Jordan can go for 40 or 50 points on you, but
the place they make their statement is on defense."
Most teams emphasize constant movement on offense; the Bulls
stress it just as much on defense. One of Chicago assistant
coach Jim Cleamons's duties is to keep track of every time a
Bulls defender touches the ball, whether it is a steal, blocked
shot, deflected pass or just a ball knocked out-of-bounds. "It
doesn't matter whether there's a change of possession or not,"
says Cleamons, who will take over as the Dallas Mavericks' new
coach when the Finals end. "We just want to keep track of every
defensive touch because it's a good barometer. It gives us an
idea of whether we're as active and alert on defense as we need
to be." Chicago coach Phil Jackson likes to see his team with a
minimum of about 12 defensive touches per half. The Bulls had
only six in the sluggish first half of Game 2 against Orlando,
and they trailed 53-38. Cleamons passed the stat on to Jackson,
who relayed it to his team at halftime, and in the Bulls'
furious second-half defensive stand, they applied full-court
pressure and had 16 defensive touches in 18 minutes. It was no
coincidence that they rallied for the victory.
Having three such skilled and versatile defenders as Jordan,
Pippen and Rodman allows Chicago to take an approach unlike any
of the other top defensive teams in the league. The Bulls do not
bump and grind teams out of their offense the way the Knicks do;
they don't have to slow the game and limit possessions the way
the Cavaliers do; and though they can double-team and trap like
the Sonics, they usually don't choose to. The Bulls can apply
more straight-up pressure than any other team in the league.
"Scottie Pippen," says Magic point guard Anfernee (Penny)
Hardaway, "can be a full-court press all by himself."
Add the newly defensive-minded Harper to the mix and the Bulls
have four players between 6'6" and 6'8" who can each defend at
least three positions. Six-foot-eight forward Rodman can guard
anyone from a small forward to a center; the 6'7" Pippen can
defend point guards, power forwards and everyone in between.
This is why the Bulls always seem to have an answer for any
potential matchup problem. At 6'7", Hardaway presents headaches
for most teams at point guard. The Bulls simply threw Pippen at
him and had Harper (6'6") defend small forward Dennis Scott.
Sonics small forward Detlef Schrempf, 6'10", is the kind of
player whose height and agility would make him a difficult
matchup for many teams, but in the Finals, Jackson can cover him
with Rodman, Pippen or 6'11" sixth man Toni Kukoc. "We have the
kind of personnel that allows us to dictate to an offense at
times, rather than the other way around," Cleamons says.
The Bulls have the rare defense that works from the outside in.
Guard Jordan, who's 6'6", and Pippen and Harper form a
long-armed outer shell protecting an interior that even with
Rodman is vulnerable. "They're long," Miami Heat point guard Tim
Hardaway said wearily after Game 1 of Miami's first-round series
against Chicago. "They're just...long." One of the reasons
centers Luc Longley and Bill Wennington haven't been overwhelmed
by the three imposing pivotman they have faced in the
postseason--Miami's Alonzo Mourning, New York's Patrick Ewing
and Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal--is that the Bulls harassed
opposing guards enough to make it difficult for them to deliver
the ball inside. "We're not afraid to come up the floor and
extend our defense," says Bulls assistant coach John Paxson,
"because we've got guys who are quick enough and athletic enough
to do it."
Their quickness and instincts make the Bulls' perimeter players
perhaps the best in the league at dropping down to double-team
in the low post and recovering in time to annoy an outside
shooter. Pippen and Jordan, in particular, are adept at
anticipating the pass out of the low post. There were times in
the Orlando series when they double-teamed O'Neal in the post
and were moving back out toward the perimeter a split second
before the ball was. "They kind of collapse in and come out,"
Inside, Rodman, the league's top rebounder (14.9 average) for
the fifth straight season, gives the Chicago defense muscle. He
is not quite the perimeter defender he once was, because he
doesn't like to venture away from the prime rebounding areas,
but around the basket there is no one more relentless. And his
ability to irritate opponents should not be underestimated.
Rodman and Seattle's All-Star power forward Shawn Kemp will get
to know each other quite well during the Finals. "The thing
Shawn will have to do is keep his composure," says Seattle
forward-center Sam Perkins. "Rodman will make you want to knock
his head off, but the minute you start thinking more about that
than about playing basketball, he's won."
Rodman, acquired from the San Antonio Spurs last October, and
Harper have been the two biggest reasons for Chicago's defensive
improvement this season. Known earlier in his career, with
Cleveland and the Los Angeles Clippers, as a solid scorer but
only a mediocre defender, Harper has discovered the joys of
defense with the Bulls. He has become so reliable that the Bulls
identified a player in each of their first three series whom
they wanted to blanket--Miami's Hardaway, New York's John Starks
and Orlando's Scott--and assigned Harper to cover him. "And in
each case he did the job," says Cleamons. "Harp is the unsung
hero of this defense."
In the Finals, the Bulls will no doubt designate some unlucky
Sonic to be the focus of their defensive attention. Shooting
guard Hersey Hawkins is a candidate, as is Payton. "They took
the ball out of Penny Hardaway's hands against Orlando, and I'm
sure they'll try to do the same with Gary," Malone says. How
well Seattle deals with the Bulls' pressure will in all
likelihood determine how competitive the series will be.
The Bulls are rested--they had nine days between the end of the
Orlando series and the beginning of the Finals--and they are
prepared to put another opponent in the grip of their defense.
Seattle should last only five games before the Bulls clamp their
hands around the championship trophy.