While the Bulls were playing the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, they were also competing against the Utah Jazz in a race to the championship series. The Jazz had already established themselves as the top threat to the Bulls, beating the Bulls in both games of their home-and-home series. When the two teams ended the regular season with identical 62-20 records, those wins gave the Jazz home-court advantage should they meet again for the championship. What's more, Utah lost to the Bulls in the finals just last year, meaning they would not be expected to struggle this time with the usual settling-in jitters. If anything, thoughts of vengeance would focus Jazz play. The Bulls have been lucky, in their five finals, to have played mostly against teams with little experience in dealing with the pressure and media frenzy of basketball's biggest event; it's an edge they have exploited whenever possible. (Remember them leaking their scouting report on the Portland Trail Blazers to the press in 1992?) But the Jazz, who had already established themselves as worthy competitors, would enter the finals hardened and experienced. So the battle for an extra edge turned to who could better conserve energy throughout the playoffs.
The Jazz fell behind in that contest early when the Houston Rockets almost eliminated them in the first round, taking their series to the maximum five games while the Bulls were sweeping the New Jersey Nets. After that, however, the Jazz were every bit as impressive as the Bulls, if not more so. Utah brushed aside the San Antonio Spurs in five games in the best-of-seven second round while the Bulls dispatched the Charlotte Hornets in five. As the Bulls faced the Pacers, the Jazz met the young and talented Los Angeles Lakers. Many sports touts, myself included, expected that series to go six or seven games with the Lakers advancing--the best of all possible worlds for the Bulls, who figured to find ways to confound and frustrate their rattlebrained juniors. Yet the Jazz beat the Bulls to that task, sweeping Los Angeles in four games and in the process making the Lakers look as stupid as they are talented.
The Bulls were running step for step with the Jazz until they lost the third game of the Indiana series Saturday. The Bulls had won the previous two games at the United Center with a stifling defense and an offense just good enough to get by. They had a stranglehold on the third game, too, until mental lapses cost them a victory. Mistakes--such as leaving a clutch player like Reggie Miller open at a critical moment--have a way of multiplying exponentially in the NBA playoffs. And though NBA conspiracy theorists believed the Bulls were all but guaranteed to advance--surely the league and NBC would do everything in their power to prevent a small-market Utah-Indiana championship series--the Bulls found the notion of a TV conspiracy to be a double-edged sword in Monday's fourth game, when the referees gave the Pacers every opportunity to even the series. The Pacers came through, assuring a sixth game in prime time Friday. Suddenly the Bulls were in the midst of a protracted series with Indiana, while the Jazz rested up and studied them on television.
To quote the late Harry Caray, there's danger here, cherie.
The Bulls got hosed and hosed badly in that fourth game, which coach Phil Jackson called "Munich '72 revisited," a reference to the 1972 Olympic basketball game in which referees kept handing the ball to the Soviet Union until it beat the U.S. team--with the help of a few extra seconds tacked on at the end. Yet the hosing didn't make the Bulls' loss any less disconcerting. Fact is, the Bulls have faced that sort of extend-the-series-at-any-cost officiating in the past and thwarted it. They didn't this time, thanks in large part to two missed free throws in the final seconds by Scottie Pippen, but also to abundant miscues earlier. Had Pippen converted, Miller's game-winning shot would only have tied the game and it's likely he never would have got it off, as the Bulls would have had the luxury of double-teaming him, leaving the area near the basket undefended.
Suddenly the competition with the Jazz was secondary; the Bulls had their hands full with the Pacers.
Like the Bulls, the Pacers wear black shoes for the playoffs. But carrying their demonstration of commitment to an extreme, each member of the Pacers shaved his head. Adopted by someone like Miller, this is a very striking look, but for the white players on the team--Chris Mullin, Rik Smits, Mark Pope, and Fred Hoiberg--it was an unfortunate fashion choice. When two or three of them were on the floor at the same time, they looked at best like members of a high school swim team in a pickup game and at worst like the travel squad from Ronald McDonald House.
The Bulls won the first two games almost entirely at the defensive end, thanks in large part to a shift in assignments. They put Pippen, their fiercest defender, on Indiana point guard Mark Jackson, the Pacers' offensive catalyst. Michael Jordan then lined up opposite Mullin, a dangerous open shooter but otherwise a minimal threat with the basketball, leaving Ron Harper with Miller. Harper later said his assignment was pure serendipity: Pippen said he wanted Jackson, so Jordan chose Mullin, giving Harper Miller, Indiana's top scorer. Whether the shift was actually due to player preference or to tactical thinking by Jackson, there was no denying it worked. Pippen hounded Mark Jackson throughout the first two games, making the Pacers' point guard seem like a mailman who had left the pepper spray in his other shorts. Jordan and Harper blanketed their men, and Indiana was stymied.
The Pacers' only consistent offense early on in the first game came from the power forwards Dale and Antonio Davis, who went crazy until Dennis Rodman came off the bench and reined them in. Jackson started Toni Kukoc in those first two games in an attempt to generate more offense against the defensive-minded Pacers--to no avail, as the Bulls looked miserable on offense in game one--but energized by Rodman, the Bulls' defense turned the tide after a sluggish start to send the team on its way to an 85-79 victory. With only one day off between the first and second games, Indiana coach Larry Bird had little time for adjustments. He seemed only to be encouraging more improvisation, but for a team with only two players who can create off the dribble--point guard Jackson and his backup, Travis Best--this was playing into the Bulls' hands, as coach Jackson said afterward. The Indiana adjustments "weren't surprising to us," he said. "They stayed more or less out of their sets and freelanced more than anything else out there on the court, which is what we were hoping for." The Bulls won the second game 104-98, getting plenty of offense from Jordan, who scored 41. Guarded by Miller, he used the same move time and again: posting up with his back to the hoop, he faked a turn one way then spun the other and popped the jumper. Yet the telling statistics from the first two games were all at the Bulls' defensive end. They forced 25 Indiana turnovers in the first game, an astounding 19 of them coming off steals (to tie a team playoff record). They forced 19 more Indiana turnovers in the second game, including 15 steals. Jackson alone committed seven turnovers in each game. Pippen was manhandling him, with a combined nine steals, and the Pacers' offense was stuck in a bottleneck like nothing this side of the East-West Tollway's entry onto the Eisenhower Expressway.
With three full days to prepare for the third game in Indiana, Bird now made adjustments, and the first was to start criticizing the officials. "I'd like to see Scottie Pippen guard Michael Jordan full-court like Scottie guards Mark Jackson and see how long he stays in the game," he said. After the first game Bird had said he'd tried to inure his team to slights at the hands of the officials, knowing the Pacers wouldn't get the calls against the Bulls. Yet there was really nothing else he could do for Jackson; he had to draw attention to Pippen's chest-bumping defense.
He saw dividends right away in the third game, when head ref Dick Bavetta, one of the bigger homers in the league, hit Pippen with a couple of early fouls. This freed up Jackson, but the Bulls--as usual--were playing with more focus offensively on the road. They absorbed the Pacers' early intensity and took a 56-52 halftime lead despite Jordan's weary performance at the end of the half, when he threw the ball away time and again (an indicator of things to come, as it turned out). When even Rodman showed some offensive flash in the third quarter, spinning to pop a short jumper, after which he gave a Jordanesque shrug of the shoulders, the Bulls led 77-69. But that's when Bird stumbled on another adjustment in the person of Best. The shorter, faster point guard was considered a defensive liability, but he proved to be too quick for Pippen; he made the Indiana offense go. As the Bulls suffered through one of their periods of offensive arrhythmia, the Pacers tied the game at 77 at the end of three quarters and went out in front 83-78 early in the fourth. Then Miller came back off the bench after suffering a sprained ankle, and the game--from the perspective of a Chicago fan--took on the feel of a traffic accident one sees happening in slow motion but can't avert. Miller was limping all over the court, but the Bulls failed to exploit him on offense--at one point Jordan, alone with Miller on one side of the court, simply passed the ball rather than break him down--and on defense both Jordan and Harper let Miller drift away for open shots. (Phil Jackson later said in no uncertain terms that Jordan "fell asleep" on Miller.) With Miller hitting a series of clutch threes--the last one on an inbounds play in which he left Harper waving at him like someone on a train platform--the Pacers went out to a 101-93 lead and held on for a 107-105 victory.
That led to Monday's game four, one of the more glaring examples of the NBA-NBC conspiracy that basketball paranoiacs can point to. At first the refs called a very loose game, which figured to benefit the Pacers. Smits sent Jordan to the locker room with a swipe across the brow that opened a cut on his eyelid--no call. Yet while Jordan was getting hacked, the Bulls' Luc Longley was getting hit with ticky-tacky fouls on Smits, who enjoyed a monster game. Even so the Bulls outplayed the Pacers and led 77-69 going into the final quarter.
Best again was put in charge of the Indiana offense in the late going, and this time he got help from Jalen Rose, who made two straight three-pointers, the second one flat-footed over a leaping Pippen to make it 80-77 Bulls. Kukoc, playing his most fluid game of the series, answered with a three at the other end that looked as effortless as dropping a pebble down a well. The odd thing was that when Jordan came off the bench after a short rest, the Bulls' offense went flat, isolating him and waiting for him to pull out the game. Indiana stormed back and went ahead 88-87 on a three by Derrick McKey. Kukoc hit a bucket to put the Bulls in front. When Best hit a ridiculous three, Kukoc answered off a lovely assist by Jordan, who drove the lane and dished wide to Kukoc in the corner, to make it 92-91 Bulls with 95 seconds left. Jordan took over the defense on Best and forced him into a poor shot, then went down and hit a beautiful jump shot over McKey--a bit of prestidigitation, all razzle-dazzle dribbling, and presto, the ball is in the hoop--and with the score 94-91 and under a minute to go I wrote "THE DAGGER" in my notebook.
Best drove for a lay-in to give the Pacers the two-for-one in end-of-the-quarter possessions, but the Bulls were still up 94-93 with about 30 seconds to go. Then Rodman got hit with a dubious offensive foul to put the ball back into the Pacers' hands. Jordan blocked a McKey shot out of bounds in the corner and Harper deflected the ensuing inbounds pass to Pippen, who was fouled, seemingly sealing the game. But Pippen missed both free throws, and when the second rebound was deflected out of bounds the ball--after an initial jump-ball signal--was awarded to the Pacers. (In analyzing who last touched the ball, NBC announcers Bob Costas, Doug Collins, and Isiah Thomas somehow ignored that McKey had climbed Jordan's back just to get a piece of it.) On the inbounds play at half-court with 2.7 seconds to go, Miller pushed Jordan away to get clear for a three and then nailed it. Jordan's attempt to answer with seven-tenths of a second to go caromed off the backboard, circled the rim, and spun out, giving Indiana a 96-94 series-tying victory.
The members of the Jazz must have been rubbing their hands in delight out in Utah, but an NBA-NBC conspiracy that extends the Bulls' series against the Pacers is just as likely to protect the Bulls and extend a series with the Jazz. Jordan, for all his storied career, has never played in a seventh game of the NBA finals. Will that be the final exploit in his career? Would that NBC could make it so right now--if only the eminently disinterested Jake O'Donnell could be lured out of retirement to referee the game.