Even as a National Basketball Association coach, Larry Bird still looks the part of a country boy. When his Indiana Pacers came to town for a first-place showdown with the Bulls last month, Bird appeared for his pregame media session dressed in shiny black shoes, dark pants, and a light-blue shirt with just the top button undone. With his hands in his pants pockets and with that familiar sparse blond mustache, he seemed every bit the young church deacon who has just finished the dishes from the men's fellowship breakfast and is now about to clip on his tie, throw on his suit jacket, and go upstairs to act as an usher. Yet there is no arguing with his results. The Pacers went into that Chicago showdown a half-game behind the Bulls and actually ahead of them in winning percentage (the Bulls had played three more games and won two of them). Even after the Bulls dispatched them here to lay sole claim to first place, the Pacers entered this week only two and a half games back and with the second-best winning percentage in the Eastern Conference. Bird's looks have always been deceptive; he may seem simple, but it's common knowledge that he was one of the great trash talkers in basketball during his playing career with the Boston Celtics, and he has put that talent to work as a coach, driving the Pacers to new heights not with tactics so much as with determination.
"I want to make this team as mentally tough as I possibly can," he said, standing outside the Pacers' locker room before the game with the Bulls. "If they get tougher they get more confident and can play with anybody."
In many ways, he acknowledged, he's trying to do for the Pacers what he previously did for the Celts and what Michael Jordan does for the Bulls: provide an example of mental toughness that demands equal dedication on the part of his teammates. "He's about as mentally tough as they come," Bird said of Jordan. "As anybody I've ever seen."
Bird's emphasis on the mental game before the physical may seem unconventional, but it's an approach he shares with both Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, the two most successful coaches in the NBA over the last two decades. Jackson's approach is well documented in his book Sacred Hoops, while Riley has done his best to convince the New York Knicks and then the Miami Heat that they first had to believe they belonged on the court with the Bulls before they could even attempt to prove they were the better team physically. That has been Bird's approach: make the team as strong as possible mentally, and only then gauge how good the players are overall. His get-tough coaching tactics even got him mentioned in an Ann Landers column recently: an Indiana fan wrote in to complain about Bird's refusing to hold the team's charter plane when two Pacers showed up on the tarmac after the boarding ramp had been pulled up. Landers came down firmly on the side of the coach.
Yet if Bird is serious about toughening up the Pacers, he might want to consider doing something about the college-ball dance routine the team goes through during introductions. Reggie Miller may be tougher than ever, but he'll never convince his teammates they're on the same level as the Bulls as long as he keeps leading them in that high-stepping, hand-slapping shimmyfest.
After that, for all Bird's talk and the team's obvious improvement, they never seemed to mount a real challenge to the Bulls in their game at the United Center. The Bulls took the lead early and never trailed after claiming a 29-25 advantage at the end of the first quarter. The Pacers tried to claw back into the game immediately after halftime, but the Bulls held them off thanks in large part to two lineups that overmatched Indiana. First there was Jackson's replacing starting guard Ron Harper with power forward Dennis Rodman, giving the Bulls a lineup of Rodman, Jordan, Pippen, Toni Kukoc, and Luc Longley against the Pacers' Dale Davis, Miller, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, and Rik Smits. Kukoc's defensive liabilities were minimized against the spot-up shooter Mullin, Jordan blanketed Miller, and Pippen stymied the point guard Jackson, while on offense the Bulls got their choice of three prime mismatches in the post: Kukoc over Mullin, Pippen over Jackson, or Jordan over Miller. (Jordan is a mismatch over anybody anywhere.) The Pacers played fairly well, and when they rallied early in the third quarter Miller and Mullin proved they can fill it up as fast as anybody when it comes to shooting three-pointers. Yet in both halves Pippen and Harper led the Bulls' bench players in a rally, and that pretty much determined the 105-97 final. As hot as Miller and Mullin were in the second half, they had to take a breather early in the fourth quarter and that's when Pippen and Harper led the Bulls back to a double-digit lead. Afterward both Bird and Miller seemed subdued, as if they had suddenly realized that the mental game is only part of the battle, which of course additionally undercut their confidence. That's why the Bulls call these "statement" games. Their statement had been made.
The win over the Pacers gave the Bulls five straight victories since the all-star break, and they would run that streak to eight. Yet something happened in the days after the Bulls' impressive performance against Indiana that seemingly jeopardized the team's mental well-being and its season. General manager Jerry Krause traded backup power forward Jason Caffey to the Golden State Warriors for power forward David Vaughn--an inferior player in almost every way imaginable--and two second-round draft choices. This week Krause cut Vaughn and picked up former Bull Dickey Simpkins.
Considering that from owner Jerry Reinsdorf to coach Jackson to Jordan and on down to the lowest towel boy behind the bench, the Bulls have made it clear that their entire emphasis is on winning a sixth and seemingly final title this year, these moves were hard to fathom. My final notation on Caffey came during the Indiana game, when he played a large role in Pippen and Harper's performance with the bench. In the second quarter, when the Bulls took command of the game by outrebounding the Pacers 19-4, Caffey pulled down seven of those rebounds, finishing with nine in 15 minutes of play and six points on three-of-five shooting. "You know," I wrote to myself, "Caffey has really turned into a pretty solid bench player. He runs the floor, hits the boards, and doesn't disrupt the offense." Don't underestimate that last quality in the Bulls' complicated triple-post scheme, which has confounded even the most talented newcomers over the years. Press row speculation suggested that Krause was making good on a contingency deal he'd cut with Golden State after sending Simpkins out there for Scott Burrell last summer: Simpkins had been dropped by the Warriors in the days before the Caffey deal, and the theory went that Krause must have promised the Warriors last summer that if Simpkins didn't work out he would send them Caffey. In effect, Krause had allowed the Warriors to choose between similar players, Caffey and Simpkins, while he plucked Burrell. Yet even if one allows Krause that unlikely possibility, one still has to come to terms with the fact that in three seasons with the Bulls, Simpkins never fit into the triangle offense--in spite of flashes here and there--and never made the team's postseason roster. Trading Caffey for Vaughn or even for Simpkins clearly weakened the team for this season's stretch run.
The Caffey trade seemed to throw the team into a funk. The Bulls lost at home to the Portland Trail Blazers in the middle of last week, ending their eight-game winning streak, then struggled with the lowly Sacramento Kings at home on Saturday. The Bulls again grabbed the early lead but they couldn't put the Kings away. In fact Sacramento claimed a 62-61 lead before the Bulls ended the third quarter with a 22-10 run to coast home. Part of the problem was a courageous "Fuck you guys, I'm gonna get mine" performance by the Kings' Mitch Richmond, who scored a game-high 34 points, the last two coming as he drove through a triple team for a lovely little lay-in. Corliss Williamson added 29, but no other Sacramento player scored more than 6. The Bulls, by contrast, had Pippen, who played one of his best all-around games of the season, with 29 points, six rebounds, and six assists, followed by Jordan with 28 points, Harper with 15, Kukoc with 14, and Rodman--the emergency starter at center when Longley sat out with a sprained knee--pulling down 18 rebounds. Pippen looked beautiful, making four of nine three-pointers, executing a couple of nifty moves inside--one a left-handed reverse layup driving through a double team under the basket, the other an arm-outstretched right-handed flip that led to a foul and three-point play--and twice making behind-the-back passes to Harper on the fast break. Harper muffed the first when the Sacramento defender adapted in time; the second faked the Kings' Mark Hendrickson completely and allowed Harper an uncontested layup.
Still, in spite of the 109-94 final score, the Bulls' bench play was inconsistent, and if you take away Rodman's 18 rebounds they actually lost the battle of the boards 38-26. With the upcoming playoffs being largely a battle of bench strength and half-court defense, the Caffey trade was looking worse than ever.
Jordan was asked if he made sense of the trade. "Not yet," he said. "But that's management at work. And you've got to remember, management wins championships."
That remark was a pointed reference to Krause's misquoted statement early in the season in which he said that it was management that gave an organization consistency over long stretches of time, but which came out, "Players don't win championships, management wins championships." So the Bulls, having proved to every other team in the league who is mentally toughest, are now involved in yet another fight between players and management about who is mentally toughest. Can they emerge from that refocused to win another championship? They always have in the past. Yet mental toughness only goes so far, and the little things--like Caffey's five points and three rebounds a game--loom large. No matter how tough the Bulls get, they may find themselves missing that seemingly small contribution come the playoffs.