Michael Jordan's most fearsome weapon isn't his jump shot or his dunk or even his defense; it's his sixth sense for when a game can be seized and pocketed, even when he and the Bulls aren't playing well. Though it's commonly referred to as his killer instinct, I don't believe there is anything instinctive about it. Jordan has always had a flair for drama, first displayed on the national stage with his game-winning shot in the 1982 college basketball championship game, but that sense of when and how to take control of a contest--especially a playoff game--is something he learned at the hands of the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons knew when they had a team on the run--they had a chess player's feel for initiative--and I can still remember Bill Laimbeer, on the bench in foul trouble during a 1989 game at the Chicago Stadium in the Bulls' first trip to the Eastern Conference finals, exhorting his teammates, "We need stops!" The Bulls had outplayed the Pistons for most of the game but suddenly the Pistons had the initiative, and if they could keep the Bulls from scoring on the next few possessions they knew they could steal the victory. Which they did.
Jordan has displayed this sixth sense so regularly over the years--it's the essential element of the Bulls' five championships and their record 72-win 1995-96 regular season--that I think most fans take it for granted. It wasn't until B.J. Armstrong displayed a like sense in the second game of the Bulls' playoff series against the Charlotte Hornets last week--a trait he had clearly learned at Jordan's knee during his seven years with the Bulls--that it was cast once again in relief. The Bulls had escaped with a win in the first game, thanks in large part to Jordan's wherewithal, and vowed to play better from the opening tip of the second game; but it took almost three minutes for either team to score the game's first basket--a jumper by Anthony Mason--and the quality of play improved only slightly after that. Though they outscored the Hornets in each of the first three quarters, the Bulls were letting them hang around. A couple of Hornets shooters can get hot in a hurry--bench player Dell Curry and starter Glen Rice, who I saw swishing three-pointers flat-footed during warm-ups with no more effort than other players expend tossing in layups--and there was an almost tangible fear throughout the United Center that the Bulls were living dangerously. Indeed, Curry came in and shot the lights out in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 of his 15 points, including a tough shot over Steve Kerr to put Charlotte in front 64-63. But it was Armstrong who had the finger on the Bulls' jugular. Pushing the ball upcourt time and again, he hit two quick stop-and-pop jumpers to put the Hornets up 68-63, and sank the dagger--Jordan's weapon of choice--by hitting from outside after a critical offensive rebound by Vlade Divac to make it 76-71 Hornets with 18 seconds to play.
"We got mired in an awful game out there tonight," Chicago coach Phil Jackson said afterward, "and Charlotte found a way to break loose."
Jordan's sixth sense prevailed as usual in the first and third games, and it wasn't called on in the fourth, which was a team domination, more an execution by machete than anything else. But in hindsight it was that second game--and seeing Jordan battle someone else for the upper hand--that offered the most drama. Jordan had gone scoreless--that's right, scoreless--for the third quarter, but when Armstrong put the Hornets up 68-63 Jordan came right back and drove for a basket, a foul, and a potential three-point play. He missed the free throw, but on the next possession drove around a Luc Longley screen for another layup to make it 70-67. Unfortunately the Bulls, needing stops, assigned Jordan to Curry and put Randy Brown in to guard Armstrong. The Hornets cheated off Brown at the other end, double-teaming Jordan with impunity, and behind Armstrong tied the series with a 78-76 triumph.
The Bulls won both games last weekend in Charlotte to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, as the Hornets--befitting their name--proved themselves dangerous but easily shooed away, more comical than threatening to the Bulls in their march toward a sixth NBA title. There was Mason and his one-handed way of shooting free throws, in which he poses with the ball in his left hand and then raises his outstretched right, like a fourth tenor about to give voice in Carmen. There was J.R. Reid, who has gone through a series of unfortunate hair stylings over his career--from the Philly fade to unruly braids--before shaving his hair altogether, which with his skull might be the most unfortunate style of all. And don't forget Divac and his flat-footed European running style that makes him look like a character from a Jacques Tati movie--never more so than during a stop in play in the first game when he bounced the ball off the floor with his foot, kicked it into the air, and served it to the referee soccer-style by bouncing it off his forehead.
The Hornets, coming in fresh from a four-game first-round series while the Bulls had been sitting around for the better part of a week, had it all their way in the early going of that first game, opening a 32-17 lead. Jordan started a 16-point Chicago run with a dunk and finished it with a lovely bank shot over a double team to put the Bulls up 33-32. Charlotte reclaimed a 38-37 advantage at halftime, but Dennis Rodman opened the third quarter scoring on a backdoor cut, and from there the Bulls sliced the Hornets open. Scottie Pippen stole the ball in the lane and went the length of the court--navigating obstacles like a white-water rafter--for a lay-in and a 44-40 Chicago lead, and by the end of the quarter the Bulls had a ten-point advantage. They looked a little lethargic to begin the final frame, and Jordan, sensing the Bulls needed a bucket, drove to the hoop and was fouled, making both shots for a 60-53 lead. After a Longley steal, Jordan drove the length of the court, shimmying at the free throw line and floating down the side of the lane for a lay-in to make it 62-53, and later executed a variation on his classic switch-of-hands-in-midair move from the 1991 finals, this one a slightly awkward, backward-leaning maneuver that saw the ball bounce four times on the rim before dropping through the hoop for a 71-62 lead on the way to an 83-70 victory.
Jackson must have felt the bad vibes gathering before the second game; he burned sage in the Bulls' locker room "to cleanse the air." It didn't work. Both teams shot so poorly in the early going it seemed some fraternity prankster had covered the hoops with cellophane. The Bulls--excellent mudders through the years--usually win ugly games like that by seizing control at the last instant, but this time Armstrong beat them to it.
Pippen did a much better job of dispersing evil spirits early in last Friday's third game with an all-time great move, a blind overhead lay-in off a short Kerr alley-oop to make it 29-24 Bulls. The Bulls were focused and in control from the beginning in Charlotte, shutting up the crowd and punctuating the point at the end of the first half, when Jordan drove around Mason and banked one high off the glass to give the Bulls a 51-42 lead. The basket gave the Bulls a two-for-one possession advantage in the closing seconds, and Toni Kukoc--who looked lost for most of the series--exploited the advantage by hitting the final shot for a 53-42 Chicago lead at intermission. Then it was Jordan seizing control of the game in the third quarter, getting started with a long jumper from the top of the circle to reinstate a double-digit lead at 62-51, posting up Armstrong and hitting a turnaround jumper down the baseline away from the oncoming double team to make it 64-51, and soon hitting another jumper to push the score to 70-55--each of those shots banging off the back of the rim and through the net with authority. The Bulls led 78-63 after three quarters and retained a 15-point edge for most of the fourth on the way to a 103-89 victory.
The Hornets came out with what Jackson likes to call desperate energy to open Sunday's fourth game, and with good reason: losing would send them back to Chicago down 3-1 and facing elimination. They immediately went up 11-2, playing at a pell-mell pace at both ends. But the Bulls weathered this early storm and claimed the lead at 16-15 on a Pippen fast-break dunk before Charlotte went back in front 20-18 at the end of the quarter. A Jordan three-point play tied it at 36, and after another Charlotte basket the Bulls seized control for good. Pippen came down trailing a slow-paced fast break--a semifast break--and, left alone, popped a three-pointer to make the score 39-38. On a similar play moments later, he faked a three and passed to Rodman alone under the hoop to make it 41-38. Charlotte coach Dave Cowens looked ill, and his team would soon display the same symptoms. The Bulls led 44-40 at halftime, having played beautiful team basketball for most of the first two quarters, with 17 of their 19 field goals coming off assists--an almost unbelievable percentage. As in the first game, they opened the second half methodically, though this time with a hurtful edge to their defensive play. When Pippen picked off a pass and cruised the floor for an uncontested lay-in it was 62-51, and before long it was 72-55. The Hornets got the last two baskets of the third quarter to close to 72-59, but a rested Jordan came off the bench to hit the first shot of the fourth quarter, swish, over Mason, and again the Bulls carved them up, going ahead 82-63, 87-67, and then, as Kukoc hit a three and Charlotte lost its cool, 90-67 on the way to a 94-80 final.
The Bulls were back to looking beautiful again, but that second game raised concerns beyond Armstrong's one-game challenge to Jordan. For one thing, the Indiana Pacers have a player of their own who knows how to kill, Reggie Miller, who has learned much from the master. (He and Jordan have become good friends off the court, and of course are ferocious competitors on it.) A worrisome absence in the closing minutes of the Chicago loss was that of Ron Harper, who returned to play very well at the beginning of the third game but whose gimpy knees have him competing in spurts. The Bulls could have used his all-around solid play at both ends late in game two, instead of having to choose between the offensive-minded Kerr and defensive-minded Brown. Should the Bulls get past the Pacers to reach the NBA finals, they will likely need a healthy Harper, who was essential in their last two championship finals against the Seattle SuperSonics and Gary Payton and the Utah Jazz and John Stockton.
Somehow, though, one expects the Bulls to prevail, if only because in a seven-game series Michael Jordan figures to find four ways to win games, whether by sinking the dagger himself or by spreading the scoring around, as was the case Sunday. Jordan seems stern, determined, and businesslike on the court this year, something one reporter asked him about after the first game with the Hornets.
"We're winning," Jordan said, "and I'm enjoying winning. I may be a little bit more focused this time, because to do it for the third time [in a row] is hard, and I'm evaluating a lot of things. I may not be smiling as much as I used to, but that doesn't mean I'm not enjoying myself." With that, a little smile curled the corners of his lips--the smile of the assassin.