THE BIG CHILL THE BULLS PROVED THAT EVEN WHEN THEIR SHOOTING WASN'T SO HOT, THEIR DEFENSE COULD ICE THE HEAT

June 01, 1997

The postgame crowd had dispersed when Dennis Rodman walked back
into the Chicago Bulls' locker room last Saturday evening,
dressed rather conventionally except for a lovely tan chiffon
scarf that dangled from his belt buckle and swayed softly as he
walked. Some guys really know how to accessorize. The Bulls had
just finished embarrassing the Miami Heat 98-74 in Game 3 of the
Eastern Conference finals, and Rodman had been his usual
disruptive self, goading what seemed to be every member of the
Heat except Burnie the mascot into an altercation. But there was
one last item he wanted before leaving Miami Arena. "Where's the
beer?" he asked. Told that there was none left, he muttered an
expletive and headed for the door.

That brew was about the only thing the Bulls had wanted to that
point in the postseason that was denied them. They had been
sloppy enough to give the Washington Bullets, the Atlanta Hawks
and the Heat false hope in each of their first three playoff
series, but they had squashed that hope every time by playing
like champions when they had to, which is why their playoff
record was 10-2 after Miami staved off elimination in Monday's
Game 4 with an 87-80 victory. (The fifth game was scheduled for
Chicago on Wednesday.) Early in the postseason Chicago had
performed just well enough to survive, but the way it played in
the first three games against the Heat served frightening notice
to the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets, who at week's end were
tied 2-2 in their battle to determine the Western Conference
representative in the Finals (following story): The Bulls seemed
primed to play even better in the next round.

"It hasn't all come together yet, but it's getting there,"
Michael Jordan said after the Bulls limited the Heat to 21-of-55
(38.2%) shooting in Game 3. "We've been building toward a
certain level of play throughout the playoffs, and it feels like
maybe we're about to reach that level."

Defensively, Chicago was already at its peak, as the Heat could
attest. During their three wins against Miami, the Bulls held
the Heat to 19 or fewer points in eight of the 12 quarters and
to an average of 73 points per game, stifling Miami in much the
same way that they did the Orlando Magic in the conference
finals last season. However, what should be of particular
concern to Chicago's next opponent is how the Bulls went about
shackling the Heat. One of Chicago's most overlooked strengths
is its ability to take away an opponent's top offensive threat.
Against Miami the Bulls improved on that by shutting down two
threats, point guard Tim Hardaway and center Alonzo Mourning.
Hardaway, who had scored 19.3 points a game in the Heat's
playoff wins over the Magic and the New York Knicks, averaged a
mere 11.3 points and Mourning (19.8 points a game in the regular
season) 15.7 in the first three games of the series against
Chicago. Both hit their low points, figuratively and literally,
in the disastrous Game 3. Hardaway missed seven of his nine
shots and scored only six points, and Mourning inexplicably took
just four shots, making only one, and finished with 12 points.
"They just seem to be in a bit of a slump," said Chicago center
Luc Longley after the Bulls' 24-point victory, "but we might
have a little bit to do with that."

Chicago had a great deal to do with that. Playing defense
against the Heat's tandem may turn out to have been a good
warmup if in the Finals the Bulls face Utah's inside-outside duo
of power forward Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton. A
key to defusing the explosive Hardaway was Chicago's ability to
close off one of his favorite maneuvers, the pick-and-roll. The
Bulls sent a second defender to "jump" the play, meaning the
second man stepped out as Hardaway came off the pick and forced
him to dribble away from the basket, giving Hardaway's defender,
usually guard Ron Harper, time to recover from being picked.

Should Chicago face Utah, the test will be whether the Bulls can
deal with the Stockton-Malone pick-and-roll as successfully,
because the Jazz pair is certainly the best in the NBA at the
play and possibly the best in league history. Where Hardaway is
a scorer, Stockton is a playmaker, drawing defenders to him and
then finding the open man, which Mourning sees as the best way
to attack the Chicago defense. "Taking it to the basket puts
pressure on their defense," he said following Game 3. "It forces
them to commit."

But Mourning may not be the best person to give advice on how to
beat the Bulls' defense. He certainly couldn't figure out a way
to do it in Game 3, when Longley and backup center Brian
Williams did a masterly job of taking him out of the Heat
attack. Some of what Chicago's big men did against Mourning
would be useful against Malone, particularly the way they found
Mourning quickly when Miami got possession of the ball, picked
him up in the backcourt and thereby made it difficult for him to
get to his favorite positions on the floor. They also tried to
keep Mourning from going to his left, which he much prefers to
going right. But Malone is more adept at driving either way, and
he is a better passer when double-teamed than Mourning is. The
Rockets' two main low-post threats, center Hakeem Olajuwon and
forward Charles Barkley, are also far more versatile offensively
than any big man the Bulls faced in the series against Miami.

Chicago's first defensive priority against Utah would almost
certainly be containing Stockton, and just as Harper was the key
figure in slowing Hardaway, he would be chiefly responsible for
Stockton. Harper is 33 and likes to sound 83. "I can't guard
Hardaway," he said after limiting him to 13 points on 4-of-14
shooting in Game 1, an 84-77 Bulls win. "I have slow feet, my
knees hurt, and I have a bad back." But the 6'6" Harper always
seems to find the fountain of youth in the playoffs, which
serves him particularly well when defending against smaller,
quicker guards. "He has long arms that can really make it tough
for smaller guards to see around him," says 6'3" Chicago guard
Steve Kerr. "I know. I have to do it in practice."

Houston would be another matter. With Olajuwon and Barkley, the
Rockets have more firepower up front than the Jazz does, which
makes for a more difficult matchup for the Bulls, whose biggest
weakness is their interior defense. Houston often uses that
inside game to set up its outside game, with its big men drawing
double teams and sending the ball out to a squadron of
three-point bombers--guards Clyde Drexler and Matt Maloney,
swingman Mario Elie and guard Eddie Johnson.

That part of the Rockets' game, however, plays right into
Chicago's strength. "They are so good at double-teaming and then
getting back to their man," says Mourning, "that sometimes you'd
swear they must have seven men on the court." Five players are
plenty when two of them are Jordan and forward Scottie Pippen.
In the Miami series Jordan and Pippen proved again that they are
unparalleled in their ability to cover huge areas of the floor.
In the way that they double-team near the basket and then race
to the perimeter to find their man when the ball is passed back
out, they are like centerfielders with great range or
cornerbacks with the ability to close rapidly on the ball.
"They're like amoebas," Heat coach Pat Riley said after Game 3,
referring to the elasticity Jordan and Pippen demonstrated on
defense. "They cut off angles, they jam the outlet pass, they
contest so many shots that even when they don't contest one, the
shooter tends to rush his shot because he's expecting that hand
in his face."

On one defensive sequence in Game 3 against Miami, Jordan left
his man, guard Voshon Lenard, to double-team Mourning in the low
post on the left side of the floor. Lenard drifted to the
three-point arc on the right, but by the time the ball reached
him, Jordan was there too, denying Lenard what would surely have
been an open jump shot against a lesser defender. "Michael and
Scottie can double-team and be headed back to their man before
the pass is thrown because they can see the play about to happen
a split second before it does," says Chicago forward Jud
Buechler. "They have the kind of instincts you can't teach."

Those instincts helped make the Bulls the toughest team in the
league to make a three-pointer against in the regular season,
when they limited opponents to 33.5% shooting from beyond the
arc. That's a number that would be of more concern to Houston,
which attempted the second-most threes (22.4 per game, making
36.5%) in the NBA during the regular season, than to Utah, which
attempted the fewest. But the message is clear to the Jazz
perimeter shooters, primarily guard Jeff Hornacek and forward
Bryon Russell, as well as to the Houston three-point
specialists: Open jump shots will be hard to come by against
Chicago.

And when the subject is defense, it's impossible to ignore
Rodman, though opponents would like to. After missing the final
13 regular-season games with a sprain of the medial collateral
ligament of his left knee, Rodman worked himself back into form
in the first two playoff rounds. He seemed to get most of the
spring back in his legs in the series against Miami, averaging
12.3 rebounds in the first four games, and he proved he's still
as irritating as poison ivy and twice as hard to get rid of. He
clearly got under the skin of Mourning (with whom he scuffled in
Game 4) and Miami power forward P.J. Brown. Rodman has had his
share of dustups with the Jazz as well, particularly during a
1994 playoff series when he was a member of the San Antonio
Spurs. But he isn't the defender he once was, and he will have
his hands full with Malone or with Barkley and Olajuwon, which
means he is likely to try that much harder to get his opponents
to lose their cool. That would be a tall order against the
relatively controlled Olajuwon or Malone; against the volatile
Barkley, it might not be.

So far in the playoffs the Bulls haven't been nearly as imposing
on offense as they have been on defense. Their 75-68 win in Game
2 of the series against the Heat, in which they shot 23 of 64,
was probably their ugliest offensive performance of the Jordan
era. In an effort to make the attack more fluid, Chicago coach
Phil Jackson had the Bulls scrimmage four-on-four in practice
before Game 3, which seemed to help. "Our offense depends on
movement, and it's hard to get that movement against a team that
grabs and bumps and holds," Jordan said after Game 3. "Hopefully
that will change as we get deeper into the playoffs." (In Game
4, though, Jordan shot a pitiful nine of 35.)

Unless Miami pulls off a miraculous comeback, the Bulls were set
to venture to the deepest playoff level: the Finals. And they
seemed fully prepared for whichever team they would meet there.
The sad reality for the rest of the league is that when Chicago
was playing poorly in the playoffs, it didn't matter, because it
wasn't playing opponents good enough to take advantage. In the
Finals, Chicago would face a worthy foe, but it appears to be
too late. Just before Rodman left the arena Saturday night,
someone handed him that beer he had been looking for. Like his
team, he had what he needed, just in time.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO Intercepted The Bulls' Scottie Pippen never got to the hoop on this drive in Game 3 of the NBA Eastern finals, thanks to a midair body slam by the Heat's P.J. Brown (page 34). [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER The ubiquitous Jordan, here snuffing Mourning, roams from perimeter to paint on defense. [Dennis Rodman, Alonzo Mourning, Michael Jordan and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Hardaway was stymied when the Bulls sent a second man, such as Pippen, to lend a hand to Harper. [Ron Harper, Tim Hardaway and Scottie Pippen in game] COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO At playoff time the supposedly creaky Harper, here banging with Brown, seems to get new bounce. [P.J. Brown and Ron Harper in game]

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)