The Bulls came out last Sunday afternoon and skunked the New York Knicks in the first few minutes of play. They did so in an almost unstoppable fashion; there was no way the Knicks could have altered their fortunes. Michael Jordan drove the lane and drew attention, then passed to center Bill Cartwright, who hit the wide-open shot. Jordan and Cartwright worked the same play the next time down the court. Then, with the Knicks' Johnny Newman playing ever so slightly off him, to prevent another drive, Jordan hit a three-pointer with a release so quick it was like the blink of a robin's eye. (He'd hit a team-record seven three-pointers the previous Thursday against the Golden State Warriors.) After a steal, Jordan loped down the court, leapt, lowered the ball to belt-buckle level, and jammed it through the hoop backwards, over his head, to make the score 9-0. Time-out Knicks.
The Bulls are a better team than they were a year ago, no doubt about it. They aren't quite as good yet, player for player, as the Los Angeles Lakers or the Detroit Pistons, but--like those two teams, which have met in the NBA finals the last two seasons--they occasionally go off on a run the other team is helpless to prevent. The Bulls' one change in the starting lineup since the end of last season was to insert John Paxson at point guard, moving Jordan back to off guard, replacing Craig Hodges, and that (along with one other significant change we'll get to later) has made the Bulls a mellower, more patient team. As Paxson is also a Chicago veteran and not a newcomer, the new lineup has already developed a chemistry the Bulls didn't have at this time a season ago, a chemistry they only hinted at in the play-offs. When Cartwright is hitting the open shot, as he was Sunday against the Knicks, the Bulls are just about unstoppable, because with either Jordan or Scottie Pippen driving to the basket Cartwright is sure to be left open for that slow-loading, mechanical ten-footer that is his trademark.
Pippen, of course, is one of the main differences between last season and this; he was the main difference between the Bulls at mid-season and the Bulls in the play-offs a year ago. It's indicative of how he's grown into his skills that his arms somehow seem to have grown longer. He's getting to passes on defense that he previously danced past, just missing them and allowing the other team an open shot. And on offense he's become a player who can dominate a game in spurts, a player who punishes the other team when its game gets a little ragged, when it blows a couple passes or fails to get back on defense after a missed shot. The Bulls' chosen style of play is a quick-shifting half-court offense with Jordan on one side and Michael Jordan Jr.--Pippen--on the other. Yet these same two players--so dangerous in the half-court game--are explosive on the run; they can turn a ball game into a rout in mere moments, especially at the Chicago Stadium, where their stuffs set the fans off and rattle the opponents.
The Bulls, as we return to them at mid-season, have three weaknesses: Paxson, Horace Grant, and the bench. The weakness of the bench is demonstrated every time the Bulls play on consecutive nights, especially a road game after a home game or, even worse, two straight road games. When an NBA team plays on consecutive nights, the guys who didn't play the night before have got to pick the team up in the following game; this isn't happening for the Bulls. In one turbulent week last month, the Bulls beat the Lakers, then lost in Orlando the following night to the expansion Magic. With a day off, they then went to Atlanta and beat the Hawks in a critical intradivision game Friday, then lost in Philadelphia on Saturday.
The Bulls' bench is weak because the rookies, including red-shirt rookie Will Perdue, have not developed as quickly as was hoped. They all continue to show signs of promise, however, and may yet be ready by the play-offs, although a more reasonable scenario is to expect them to contribute heavily next year. Perdue--the seven-foot Vanderbilt center with the big feet and the sleepy-eyed foul shot--is almost close; he played well against Patrick Ewing both times the Bulls played the Knicks within a week's time. He passes well, has some effective if awkward offensive moves, and struggles as hard as anyone on defense. What's lacking is confidence and floor sense, which can only come with playing time. Stacey King, too, shows flashes of competence. The Bulls are easing his transition into the pro game by posting him up, back to the basket, on offense, just as he played in college. (When he plays alongside Cartwright, his presence in the low post on one side makes Cartwright even more open on the other side when Jordan or Pippen drives the lane.) Against the Knicks, when Ewing sat down with foul trouble in the second half, the Bulls even played King at center for a short time. (He responded with a pair of tip-ins.) B.J. Armstrong, we are sorry to report, is not advancing. He has developed a preference to shoot himself (pardon the pun) rather than pass the ball--a poor tendency for a point guard, especially one weaned in the Big Ten. (Armstrong went to Iowa.) Armstrong likes to come up the floor, dribbling, holding one finger in the air. As one friend of ours puts words in Armstrong's mouth, that means: "The Number One play. I get to shoot." Against the Knicks, Armstrong was on the floor at the end of the first half, running the offense for the last shot, and all he did was dribble around and then fire up a long shot at the buzzer. It missed.
It's indicative of the level the Bulls are at that Paxson and Grant can be considered weaknesses only against superior teams. Paxson knows the Bulls, likes to pass, and has a good if erratic shot, but he's slow; the better point guards in the league tend to run past him. Grant has improved his outside shot, and he's extremely skillful at knifing between bigger players to get rebound position, but he's still too slight to play power forward against the league's best at the position.
There's not much to coaching in the NBA; the 24-second shot clock doesn't allow the sort of varied tactics common in college ball. Yet there's an obvious difference between pro teams that are well coached and those that are not. The pro game--with its requirement to play man-on-man defense--is a game of matchups, and a good coach prepares his team to cover up its own deficiencies on defense and to exploit its strengths on offense. Against the Knicks, Paxson started against Mark Jackson, but as soon as the Knicks substituted with Rod Strickland the Bulls responded by sending in Armstrong. With Grant expected to struggle against Charles Oakley, Jordan was given the assignment to collapse on defense and help out on the boards (he finished with ten rebounds). Likewise, when Perdue was in guarding Ewing, the entire team was told to collapse on the middle whenever the Knicks' center had the ball.
These tactics are simple, but it takes a good coach to see the need for them and to teach them. The biggest difference in the Bulls--or rather, what's become the most discernible difference between this season and last--is Coach Phil Jackson. When the Bulls built a lead at the half, they then came out in the third quarter cutting Jordan, Pippen, and Grant inside to pressure the Knicks into foul trouble. With the Knicks' best players forced to sit on the bench and the Bulls 22 points up, Jackson sent in his scrubs to get some playing time. (At one point he had a lineup of Armstrong, Craig Hodges, Perdue, King, and the other rookie, Jeff Sanders, on the court.) When the scrubs faltered and let the Knicks back in the game (they eventually closed to within four), Jackson sent the starters back in. Yet where Doug Collins, at this point, would have been munching his fingers, down on one knee, at the side of the court, Jackson sat down and struck up a conversation with assistant coach Tex Winter as the game went on. Where Collins would have raced from the court brushing sweat from his brow after the game ended, Jackson strolled to the Bulls' dressing room.
The Bulls may not yet be as good as the Pistons or the Lakers man for man, but I think--pending the results of last Tuesday's game against the Pistons--that they may have the coach to make up for it.
Another long football season is about to come to an end, with a final result that will be either painfully predictable or one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport. There is really no middle ground. The wise guys in Vegas have established the San Francisco 49ers as 12 1/2-point favorites over the Denver Broncos. The other lines that have been drawn between the two teams are even clearer than that. The Niners are trying to repeat as NFL champion--an unheard-of feat in this age of parity--and would tie the Pittsburgh Steelers' record of four Super Bowl victories with a win. The Broncos would tie the Minnesota Vikings' ignominious record of four Super Bowl losses with a defeat.
The teams that will play Sunday are remarkably similar to their historical counterparts. The Niners' quarterback, Joe Montana, is both skilled at reading defenses and a pinpoint passer; the Steelers' Terry Bradshaw called his own plays and threw the most impressive spirals the sport has ever seen. The Niners, like the Steelers, also have two great receivers with an apparent instinct for the football. The San Francisco defense, bolstered with free-agent signings over the last off-season, increasingly emulates its Pittsburgh forerunner. The Broncos, like the Vikings, are led by a skillful, scrambling quarterback with an apparent weakness for losing big games. The Denver defense, also bolstered by free agents, also increasingly emulates its Minnesota forerunner, with a strong pass rush backed up by underrated linebackers. Yet both teams also emulate their counterparts in another, more important element. The Niners are a level above everyone else, not only physically but in their mental approach to the game. Their plays match up one with the next. A Roger Craig run is meant to pull in the linebackers so that Tom Rathman can circle out of the backfield across the middle for a pass on the next play. That play draws the safeties in, and Montana then tries to hit either Jerry Rice or Johnny Taylor on a post pattern on the play following. The Broncos approach this type of football, but never really duplicate it. They inevitably wind up depending on quarterback John Elway--a skilled improviser--to pull out the big play.
A Denver win Sunday would be the biggest upset since the New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. To do it, the Broncos must blitz on defense but in unpredictable ways (one can only hope that, since the Broncs have lost three times previously, they will play this game with some abandon). The Niners prepare so well for each opponent that the Broncos should change their defensive look and their coverages almost entirely. This is a tall order, asking a conference champion to change everything it does well at the height of the season, but it's what must be done. In the best football game of the season so far, Miami shocked top-ranked Notre Dame in the college ranks with an innovative defense that stacked the outside linebackers directly behind the defensive ends. This destroyed the Notre Dame blocking schemes, but at the risk of giving up the corners to Tony Rice and his option game. The Hurricanes somehow managed to seal those corners (the Miami middle linebacker had a career game), and they went on to win the national championship.
I don't think Denver's capable of the same, or rather, I think that with two weeks to prepare the Niners will be ready for anything the Broncos throw at them. The Broncos need too much luck to win, and the Super Bowl's not a game for luck. The Jets didn't upset the Colts by kismet; they won on a tactical game plan executed by a skillful quarterback. I'll be rooting for the Broncs on Sunday, but I won't be betting on them. I'm writing about football now because there'll be no need to write about it later if the Niners establish themselves Sunday as the greatest football team in NFL history. They'll have said enough for themselves.