"I played like doo-doo," Michael Jordan said.
He was talking about his 4-of-15 shooting performance in the second game of the Eastern Conference finals between the Bulls and the Miami Heat. Yet his playful, childish choice of words did not come off the top of his head, as Scottie Pippen would soon reveal. Pippen sat down alongside Jordan in the media interview room following that second game, an ugly 75-68 victory that set an NBA playoff record for the lowest score since the arrival of the 24-second clock. After Jordan answered a couple more questions, the Sun-Times's Lacy Banks asked one of Pippen.
"Y'all done with me?" Jordan said, getting up from his chair.
"No, no!" Banks said.
"No, we can't let Doo-Doo leave," Pippen said, his face breaking into a huge smile. Jordan smiled too as he sagged back into his seat. "We've already given ourselves names in the locker room," Pippen soon explained.
"I'm Doo-Doo," Jordan interrupted. "He's Shit." The media room cracked into hysterics.
There have been moments on the court when Jordan and Pippen displayed a Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig dynamic, an ability to drive each other to great heights and pick each other up after great pratfalls--most recently in the final game of the Bulls' opening playoff series against the Washington Bullets, when with the clock ticking down and the Bulls one point behind Jordan lost the ball, only to see Pippen snatch it and drive for a game-winning slam dunk. Their smiling, wisecracking ways on the bench at the end of a rout are the very image of the giddy confidence Ruth and Gehrig projected in the early Murderers' Row years of the New York Yankees' dynasty. As Jordan put it after that second game, in denying that the Bulls' flat performance had been intentional: "We'd rather have a blowout so that he and I could ice our knees down and joke about the people in the stands." Yet rarely had the Ruth-and-Gehrig jocularity been as visible as it was now. Following a most humbling night of play on the court Jordan and Pippen managed to strike the pose of greatness off it, and never had the separation between them and other players been quite so glaring.
The Heat, from coach Pat Riley on down, had been morose about losing both of the opening two games in Chicago. "They have given us so many opportunities to win it's ridiculous," said Miami center Alonzo Mourning. Riley added that this brutal second loss--a defensive tussle in which both teams looked inept on offense--was even more aggravating than the opening defeat, in which the Heat blew an early 15-point lead and an 11-point halftime advantage to lose 84-77.
Yet here were Jordan and Pippen laughing about the game. "You never want to look Ugly in the face," Jordan said philosophically, again cracking up his audience of reporters. Yes, it's easier to laugh as the victor than as the vanquished. "If we're playing ugly because of their defense, they're playing uglier because of our defense," Jordan said. "As long as they're playing uglier than we are, you won't hear me complaining." Yet not even this explained the elevated spirits Jordan and Pippen found themselves in. Having finished a final question, Jordan got up out of his seat saying, "C'mon Shit, let's go." Their comfort under intense pressure and media scrutiny--not any mere Xs and Os on a locker-room blackboard--is what the Utah Jazz had trouble matching up with as the NBA finals got under way Sunday at the United Center.
Actually, the Jazz looked remarkably composed from the opening tip. They had never been to the finals before but they are an experienced team, very set and secure in their ways. Coach Jerry Sloan has taken the pressure-release plays he learned from Bulls coach Dick Motta in the early 70s--the picks Chet Walker and Bob Love and Norm Van Lier and Sloan himself used to set for each other--and refined them to the point where they are now almost baroque in their complexity. The Jazz are a very regimented team but thoroughly unpredictable, and the Bulls had a difficult time in the opening game getting the defensive stops they'd achieved so routinely against the Heat, the Atlanta Hawks, and the Bullets.
The Jazz led 42-38 at the half on the strength of plays like the final possession: a crisp pick-and-roll run by point guard John Stockton and power forward Karl Malone, followed by a surprising Stockton pass--not to Malone cutting to the hoop, but crosscourt to small forward Bryon Russell for an open three. He hit it to halt a six-point run by the Bulls and turn a one-point game into a four-point game.
Yet the unique pressure of the finals eventually got to the Jazz in the form of eight third-quarter turnovers--three by Malone and two by Stockton--and then two more by Stockton on consecutive possessions at a critical juncture of the fourth quarter. There were also Malone's three missed free throws in the fourth quarter, including, of course, his twin misses with nine seconds to play in a tie game (this from the 1996-'97 "most valuable player," who had shot 82 percent from the line in the playoffs coming into the game).
Jordan and Pippen finished with 31 and 27 points--the only Bulls in double figures--and they were involved in most of the critical plays in the second half, including, of course, the last one. Jordan drove the baseline late in the third quarter and passed out to Pippen at the top of the circle for an open three and a 57-56 lead, the Bulls' first since the middle of the second quarter. The Jazz regained a five-point advantage early in the final frame, but Jordan made a crosscourt pass that allowed Ron Harper to step into an open three. That made it 70-68 Jazz. Utah got another five-point lead, but then Stockton committed his two straight turnovers, allowing the Bulls to go ahead 76-75 when Jordan drove the lane and passed out wide to Luc Longley for an open shot. Jordan, Harper, and Pippen--the Bulls' three most effective players throughout the playoffs--all touched the ball on a crucial basket, with Jordan missing but Harper rebounding and passing out to Pippen for a three that put the Bulls up 81-79. Stockton responded in kind to put Utah back in front, then Jordan made only one of two free throws to tie it at 82 in the final minute. But Malone missed both of his and Jordan came down with the rebound. After a time-out, Toni Kukoc relayed the inbounds pass to Jordan, who lured Russell into an attempt at a steal, then leaped while Russell lunged. The ball banged off the back rim and through the hoop. Jordan calmly turned and pumped his fist once.
So while the Jazz survived the finals pressure to play a good game, they lost in a particularly excruciating fashion. Malone said afterward that he didn't want to hear any excuses about the team with finals experience being able to pull the game out, but even Stockton had to admit, "There's a lot of things different about this whole thing"--among them a reporter from the Philippines pointing out, very diplomatically, that Stockton had committed seven turnovers for the game ("Thank you," Stockton responded), and a litany of questions that began with phrases such as "How deflating...?" "How helpless...?" and "How agonizing...?" Because of the playing schedule dictated by NBC, Utah had two off days here in Chicago to endure more questions like that before getting a chance to redeem itself. The Jazz were completely unlike the Heat in demeanor and savvy--in short, in class--but after losing a game they could well have won they faced the same fate as every other team that's faced the Bulls.
The Heat came in with chips on their shoulders, but instead of elevating their play that attitude only seemed to distract them. They were defensive, insecure, and ultimately inferior. Riley always appeared most concerned with how he was stacking up against Jackson and Jordan at the podium, but he lost that battle for good when he couldn't come up with a snappy comeback to a moronic question asked by WSCR-AM talk-show host Mike North after the third game in Miami. "If God came down and said you could win the next four games but you'd have to shave your head, would you do it?" North said. A simple yes would have sufficed, but Riley glared at North as his eyes turned red and smoke began coming out of his ears, then muttered, "That's a hell of a question."
Mourning, meanwhile, let Dennis Rodman into his head early in the series and never got him out. "Y'all know Dennis," he said after the first game, addressing the media as if they were the members of a jury and this was his opening statement. "Y'all know his antics. It's unfortunate that we as players have to put up with that." Yet it was Mourning who raised a huge welt on Pippen's forehead with a nasty elbow in the fourth game, the only one Miami was able to salvage.
After Jordan used that incident to inspire himself, saying the series was now "personal," Mourning and the Heat wilted in the fifth game. Mourning had opened the series refusing to take part in the usual gentlemanly fist taps before the opening tip, but before the fifth game Jordan upped those stakes and refused to shake Mourning's hand when it was proffered at the even more diplomatic pregame meeting of captains and referees. Mourning was crushed--or at least played as if he were. He did not make a basket from the field until there were 2.5 seconds left in the game. "He did it himself," Jordan said afterward. "We didn't do nothing. He just talked himself out of the game."
The series was captured in miniature in one critical sequence early in the second game. Jordan hit Pippen with a lovely arcing lead pass on a fast break, and Pippen was fouled under the hoop. The refs, however, made no call, which was typical of the series and especially typical of that game, when more elbows than shots connected in the freethrow lane. Pippen was irate, barking at the refs and then almost absentmindedly turning his attention to the Heat's John Crotty, who now had the ball. Pippen slapped the ball to the floor. Both players dived for it but Pippen seized it and stood up. Crotty, still on the floor, tried to tangle his legs in Pippen's, but Pippen looked down at him with a mixture of disbelief and disdain and banked in the short jumper, with the refs at last calling a foul. Pippen then gave it to Crotty verbally in no uncertain terms, and when Miami's Willie Anderson jumped in as the third man in the fray the refs hit him with a technical foul. The Bulls' Steve Kerr made that foul shot. Pippen then missed his attempt to complete his own three-point play, but Brian Williams came down with the rebound and passed outside to Kerr, who faked a shot and passed to Pippen cutting to the hoop for a slam dunk. When the dust from this little sequence had cleared the Bulls were up 29-16, and given the tempo of play--which Jackson later compared to a football game--it was like a lead of two touchdowns. The Heat scrambled back into the game in the second half, but the Bulls won with better execution down the stretch--the story of the series, and the story, really, of their four previous championships.
Aside from the fifth game, when Pippen went out early with a foot injury, Jordan and Pippen dictated the terms of the Heat series. After their poor performances in the second game they combined for 36 points in the first half of the third game, on the way to a win that all but sealed the series. Pippen brought the Bulls within one in the first game with a clutch three, then opened game two with a pair of threes and hit another that reinstated a ten-point lead with a minute to play. Jordan reigned in the third game and again early on in the fifth before the bench finally got involved.
Those two aside, it was Harper who played solid defense and time after time found himself in the right place at the right time on offense. It was his three, after Jordan drew a double-team with a baseline drive, that put the Bulls in front for good, 75-73, in the first game. The same play worked again as Harper put the Bulls up 66-58 late in the second-game scrum. Harper would miss two free throws to put the lead in jeopardy, but he converted one of two in the final minute to seal the win by making it a three-possession game. (Pippen playfully put an arm around his neck and made as if to strangle him as they walked to the sideline after that.) He hit another critical three to make the score 91-78 with five minutes to play in the clinching fifth game. Along the way, he played a stifling defense against Miami point guard Tim Hardaway, just as he had against Mookie Blaylock of Atlanta in the second round. And quite unlike Jordan and Pippen, he was humble all the way.
"I can't guard Hardaway," Harper said after holding him to 13 points on 4-of-14 shooting in the opening game. "I got slow feet. My knees hurt. And I have a bad back. So I can't guard him." That was the full text of his remarks to the media that night. "Later," he said. Behind every Ruth and Gehrig, there's always a Bob Meusel.
Still, it was Jordan who led the way, never so much, oddly enough, as in the fourth game, when he missed his first 14 shots from the field and at one point in the third quarter had made just 2 of 24. But he got hot and almost single-handedly pulled off the comeback before the Bulls finally expired 87-80. There were times in that fourth game when he seemed as willful and instinctive as a salmon swimming upstream, as with his head down, on the dribble, he just kept leaping and shooting. In a mild media scandal, it was said after the game that Jordan had spent the day off between games three and four playing 46 holes of golf. But when he scored 15 in the first quarter of the clincher all was forgiven, and after that game Jordan was again in gleeful spirits--this time by himself at the podium, as Pippen had been injured.
Asked if he had a new nickname now, Jordan thought for a moment then said, "Golf Fanatic." Given his heroics in the first game of the finals, and his team's calm under pressure, it looked as if he would soon be able to exercise that fanaticism free of guilt.