Their toughest opponents have always been the ones they could
not see or touch. Age and fatigue and even the weight of their
own legend are joining forces against the Chicago Bulls now,
pounding away at them like waves, slowly eroding what they have
built. This is no Last Dance, as coach Phil Jackson likes to
call what might be this team's final run together. Last dances
are wistful pleasures; this is more like the Last Lap, and the
Bulls are the tiring distance runner, straining for the finish
line as the footsteps behind them grow louder.
Don't be fooled by their 88-83 victory over the Indiana Pacers
in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals at the United Center
on Sunday. The Bulls certainly weren't. The prevailing emotion
in their locker room afterward was not jubilation but relief
mixed with a touch of apprehension. The Bulls were hoping the
Utah Jazz was more rusty than rested after having had 10 days
off before Wednesday's NBA Finals opener at the Delta Center.
But more likely Utah was simply emboldened by its home court
advantage, its two-game regular-season sweep of the Bulls and
the knowledge that it pushed Chicago to six hard-fought games
before bowing in last season's Finals. The sight of Michael
Jordan, 35, bent over and tugging on his shorts in the last
seconds of Sunday's game, with the outcome assured, was
symbolic: The Bulls were victorious but spent.
If the valiant Pacers did nothing else, they succeeded in
sweeping away any air of invincibility that the five-time
champion Bulls had left. "I believe they are more vulnerable,"
Indiana center Rik Smits said after Game 7. "They've shown it
not only against us but also against other teams. They showed it
today." The Bulls couldn't disagree. "Have we lost a little bit
of our swagger? Probably," Jordan admitted. "It's hard when
you're playing against the high standards we've set for
ourselves. But we're still the champions. No one has taken
anything away from us yet."
The Jazz, however, is poised to do just that. Utah poses a more
difficult challenge than any Chicago has faced in its previous
five Finals, because in addition to having the home court
advantage, the Jazz is a deeper team and it is the first club to
play the Bulls for the title twice. The mental edge Chicago has
had in previous Finals--the awe factor, Jordan calls it--should
June 7, 1998
Even before the Utah players knew who they would face in the
Finals, they felt that last year's experience, when they reached
the championship series for the first time, would make them
mentally tougher this year. "Last year we got that monkey off
our backs by reaching the Finals," Utah guard Jeff Hornacek
says. "It was such a major hurdle, one the Jazz had never gotten
over. This year it's no big celebration. We know it's just
another step on the way to what we're trying to do. It's not
something we haven't done before."
While the Jazz seems more prepared for the Finals than last
season, the Bulls appear less so. Clearly, Chicago is not the
team of even a year ago, a club that considered itself so
superior to the rest of the playoff field that it was more
concerned with maintaining a high level of excellence than with
the challenge offered by any given opponent. Whereas the old
Bulls could overcome anything--rough defensive tactics,
questionable calls, hostile crowds on the road--by simply going
about their business, these Bulls are testy, perhaps because
they sense their own vulnerability. They have to play the game
the same way as everyone else now, looking for any little
advantage, even trying to influence the referees through the
During the conference finals the Bulls stepped slightly out of
character by constantly criticizing the officiating. They have
griped about referees before, usually when they were getting
assaulted by the New York Knicks or the Miami Heat in playoffs
past, but their complaints then were almost always limited to a
sarcastic comment or two from Jackson, not the kind of tirades
that marked the Indiana series. Such outbursts are an indication
that the Bulls can no longer afford to be above the fray.
In fact, officiating could be a prominent factor in the Finals,
because the Bulls and Jazz test referees' discretion as much as
any teams in the league. The Jazz offense relies heavily on
screens, not merely by 6'9", 256-pound forward Karl Malone and
other big men on the pick-and-roll, but from the guards,
particularly Hornacek and John Stockton, who set picks along the
baseline. Utah is often accused of setting those screens
illegally, and it won't be a surprise if Chicago joins that
chorus. On the other hand the Jazz, like every other team in the
league, will charge that Jordan is protected by the referees, on
offense and defense.
Jackson began lobbying the officials for foul calls in the Utah
series even before the Bulls had dispatched the Pacers. "We're
going into a series where Malone knows how to do things that
create [foul] calls," Jackson said on the day before Game 7.
"Stockton knows how to do things--coming off screens, going
through the lane--that create foul calls. It's a flopping
gesture. Michael has never played like that, where he flops,
asks for fouls, acts out a foul situation."
However, the Bulls would be wise to worry more about the Jazz
bench than the refs. Utah doesn't have reserves who can cause
the kind of matchup problems that quick Indiana guards Jalen
Rose and Travis Best did, but in swingman Shandon Anderson,
forward Antoine Carr, point guard Howard Eisley and center Greg
Ostertag, the Jazz has productive subs who can play for long
stretches and wear down the Bulls. With the exception of
forward-guard Toni Kukoc, who will probably return to his
sixth-man role after starting six games of the Indiana series,
Chicago does not have that depth. Thus the 36-year-old Stockton
and the 34-year-old Malone should not be as fatigued at the end
of games as Jordan and Pippen, 32, and the longer the series
goes, the more Utah's superior bench could be a factor.
The Bulls could be particularly hurt by their lack of options up
front, where Malone is a more dangerous low-post scoring threat
than anyone the Pacers had to offer. In the Finals last season,
Chicago center Luc Longley and forward Dennis Rodman had their
hands full against Malone, and both are coming off lackluster
performances against Indiana. Smits made 14 of 19 shots in the
final two games of the series, most of them against Longley.
Rodman, who wasn't thrilled to serve as a sixth man, was
strangely subdued throughout the series, averaging only 9.9
rebounds compared with his league-leading 15.0 during the
regular season. "We're not that concerned," Jackson said after
Game 7. "Dennis has been struggling coming off the bench. He'll
have a different role in this next series. It will be his turn
The Bulls need a rejuvenated Rodman because they don't have the
insurance policy for him that they had last year, when 6'11"
Brian Williams was instrumental in their championship run. A
free agent after last season, Williams signed with the Detroit
Pistons. Also, in February the Bulls traded 6'8" power forward
Jason Caffey to the Golden State Warriors for forward David
Vaughn, whom they later waived. The result is, if Longley and
Rodman can't handle Malone, or if they get into foul
difficulties, the Bulls are in deep trouble. "I told Toni that I
was going to put him on Malone," Jackson said of the slender
6'11" Kukoc, who's not known for his rugged defense. "But that
was just sadistic humor on my part."
Of course, Chicago still has the ultimate weapon in Jordan, who
will face a rotation of defenders, including Hornacek, Anderson
and likely starting small forward Bryon Russell. The Bulls also
have a withering defense, which essentially won Game 7 against
Indiana by shutting down the Pacers in the fourth quarter.
Indiana scored only 18 points in the period--none by offensive
miracle worker Reggie Miller, whom Jordan limited to one shot.
"Our defense is the thing that has never really failed us," said
Pippen, whose shackling of Pacers point guard Mark Jackson was
pivotal in the Bulls' victories. "If we play that kind of
defense against Utah, I think we'll be all right."
Turning up the defense to take games away in the fourth quarter
has become Chicago's trademark, but if any team seems capable of
withstanding that defensive pressure, it is Utah. With Stockton
at the controls of the league's most efficient offense, the Jazz
will not be easily rattled. "What makes them so great is that
they get a good shot virtually every time down the floor," says
Bulls guard Steve Kerr. "If you watch us play, you see that's
not the case. Too often, we end up with Michael or Scottie
having to create something with the shot clock running down. Our
offense has to be more precise, because we know that theirs will
The 6'7" Pippen doesn't expect to guard the 6'1" Stockton in the
Finals because the Utah point guard is quicker and doesn't try
to score in the low post the way Mark Jackson does. The key task
of controlling Stockton will fall to 6'6" guard Ron Harper, who
in past playoff series has made life difficult for point guards
Gary Payton (Seattle SuperSonics), Rod Strickland (Washington
Wizards) and Tim Hardaway (Miami Heat).
Utah can expect Harper to be the same subtle but unyielding
force that he was against the Pacers. While Jordan and Pippen
are routinely spectacular and Rodman grabs rebounds and
attention, Harper fills in all the cracks. He is often asked to
shut down the opponent's best backcourt scorer and to take
advantage of a defense that slacks off him, as he did with 15
points against the Pacers in Chicago's 85-79 win in Game 1. "Ron
is the unsung hero of this team," says Pippen, Harper's closest
friend on the Bulls.
Harper's locker-room contribution is often underestimated
because the Bulls' demeanor is generally thought to be drawn
from their four most prominent personalities. Jackson is the
spiritual one, Jordan is the passionate one, Pippen is the
coolly detached one and Rodman is the wild one. But Harper, the
lighthearted one, is a behind-the-scenes leader.
It was Harper, 34, who joked about secretly attending the
Indianapolis 500 the day after the 107-105 loss to the Pacers in
Game 3, despite Jackson's orders for the players to stay away
from the race. "We should all sneak over there," Harper said.
"We'd probably get there and find Phil sitting in a luxury box."
It was his way of saying that he wasn't shaken by the defeat,
and the rest of the team shouldn't be, either. Harper is
probably the most popular player among his teammates, the bridge
between the stars and the supporting cast. He has been accepted
into Jordan's inner circle--he, Pippen and Jordan work out
together at Jordan's home several times a week--but the role
players still consider him one of them. "Ron is the guy who
helps keep everybody loose," says Jackson. "But at the same time
he's respected for his dependability. He's willing to do some of
the thankless tasks on this team."
It's easy to get the impression that Harper doesn't take
anything seriously, but he does. He closely studied tapes of
Miller for days before the Pacers series, and it was in one of
his sessions with Jordan and Pippen that the plan for Pippen to
defend Mark Jackson was hatched. "When these start to go," he
said after Game 3, pointing to his legs, "you have to start
using this." He pointed to his head. Harper will also try to use
his arms against Stockton. One of the keys to Chicago's defense
is the wingspans of perimeter defenders Harper, Jordan and
Pippen, who will try to make the passing angles difficult for
As for Utah, Malone has to be a dominant force inside, the Jazz
has to avoid making the turnovers that feed the Bulls' offense,
and the Utah defenders must be prepared to help the poor soul
who guards Jordan. In the end that last task may be the most
important for Utah. The Bulls' history suggests Jordan will find
a way to bring another championship to Chicago, but they may
have finally run into the team to whom that history means
nothing. Unless the Bulls can somehow win the series in five
games or less--a long shot--the championship will be won in the
Delta Center, and it is hard to imagine the Jazz allowing even
Jordan to walk away a winner there. The feeling here is that
Utah's players are ready to make some history of their own, and
that they will do so in seven games.
"Have we lost a bit of our swagger? Probably," Jordan admitted
after Game 7.
Turning up the defense to take games away in the fourth quarter
has become Chicago's trademark.