A specter haunted the Bulls this season, and the better they got the more haunted they were. It was one thing to lose the first nine games on the way to a 2-13 start. But as the team turned its season around to finish 47-35, post the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, and end six long years as losers, they summoned the ghost of Michael Jordan's Bulls.
No player was more singled out as Jordanesque than rookie Ben Gordon, who scored in double figures in the fourth quarter a league-leading 21 times and twice hit game-winning shots at the buzzer. Gordon scored 12 points in the fourth quarter of the first playoff game against the Washington Wizards, and the comparison to Jordan seemed entirely deserved. Then Kirk Hinrich stepped up to provide the heroics in the second game, scoring 21 in the final frame. "Michael Who?" read a fan's sign at the United Center.
But when the series moved to Washington I found myself recalling more of the qualities that distinguished the Bulls' championship seasons, qualities the new Bulls failed to demonstrate. The championship Bulls would typically take a 2-0 lead in a playoff series knowing that when they went on the road the NBA would bring in its most timid officials, ones sure to favor the home team. It took mental toughness to put up with the biased calls and antagonistic crowds and still cut out the opponents' hearts, and they had it. This season's Bulls were never in the third game, and they got off to a miserable start in the fourth. They winnowed the Wizards' lead at the end, but not enough to put themselves in a position to win. The championship Bulls defended their home court, but these Bulls came home for the fifth game and again fell far behind. They rallied in the fourth quarter as coach Scott Skiles went with his most effective lineup--Gordon, Hinrich, Chris Duhon, Andres Nocioni, and Tyson Chandler--for almost the entire period. But eventually the Bulls gave out, and the Wizards reclaimed a ten-point lead.
The Bulls made up that deficit in the final 40 seconds, as guard Jannero Pargo came off the bench to pour in three three-pointers. Hinrich added another, and the Bulls held the Wizards to a pair of free throws. Pargo's last three might have put him in the Bulls' pantheon had the game turned out differently. Up three, the Wizards fouled Hinrich with nine seconds to play. He missed the first shot, and the Bulls' best hope was that he'd miss the second too but they'd get the ball back. Sure enough, the ball ricocheted to Hinrich's feet, and he scrambled to the floor and immediately passed wide to Pargo, who hit the game-tying shot. But then the Wizards called time and set up an isolation play for all-star guard Gilbert Arenas. With five seconds left in regulation, he dribbled left of the free-throw line, pulled up, and--with Hinrich sticking a hand in his face and Chandler coming in to scrape at the sky--sank the shot at the buzzer. That silenced the crowd in exactly the way a certain Bull used to do. Michael Who? indeed.
The championship Bulls never beat themselves, not even when Jordan and Scottie Pippen played poorly enough to call themselves "Doo-doo" and "Shit." They forced an opponent to defeat them, and usually it was the opponent who found a way to lose. The Bulls led for most of the sixth game in Washington, but the Wizards rallied to tie it at 91. Even so, the Bulls had the ball and a chance to go ahead with 31 seconds to play. But when Duhon turned away from Hinrich's inbounds pass, the ball bounced off his back and Wizards forward Jared Jeffries scooped it up and dribbled in for a slam dunk. In the final seconds Nocioni missed a game-tying three, and when Chandler got the rebound he didn't pass back out but instead took a shot inside the three-point line. It was stupid basketball. The shot missed, but the Bulls would have lost by a point if it had gone in. Promoted to the starting lineup when Duhon struggled with back spasms, Gordon played miserably throughout and didn't score a point.
None of this is intended to be dismissive of this year's Bulls, whose turnaround was one of the sports stories of the year. As I suggested in my last column, Skiles deployed Gordon in the manner of a medieval falconer who at key moments sends forth the elegant bird from his leather-gloved fist. Hinrich proved himself a gritty player able to switch smoothly from point to shooting guard. Argentine import Nocioni brought a fierce determination and gamesmanship honed in international competition. Veterans Antonio Davis and Othella Harrington provided a quiet, stolid presence inside, even if they turned out to be overextended as starters. Eric Piatkowski was a lunch-bucket guard with a face out of Algren, but he made 43 percent of his three-point shots as a role player off the bench. Before that last gaffe of his, Duhon established a reputation as a cool and heady rookie, and the teenage Luol Deng played a key role as a starting forward and agile open-court player before he was lost for the year with a torn ligament in his right wrist.
Then there were Chandler and Eddy Curry, the former high-school phenoms who would have been college seniors this year. After three seasons of failed promise, they stopped trying to do everything and developed into a matched set of specialists. Having finally acquired a set of shoulders in the weight room, Chandler became a tenacious defender and rebounder, even if he was still an accident waiting to happen with the ball in his hands. Slimmed down by a summer conditioning program, Curry remained a passive and sometimes apathetic defender, but he became a dependable scorer in the low post. An erratic heartbeat ended his season and will no doubt cost him millions of dollars--if he's cleared to play at all after a battery of medical tests--as he, like Chandler, will be a restricted free agent this summer. That's good for the Bulls, however, as they'll likely have to pay less to meet his price on the open market.
It was inspirational watching this team come together under the gruff, tough, demanding, and sarcastic Skiles, and they may yet develop into a championship-caliber team. But that's the onus on them now: having attained more than mere respectability, they now must rise to the old Bulls' level.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Doug Pensinger--Getty Images.