The Bulls are a team without a center--literally and metaphorically. They've lacked a true man in the middle since they dealt the recalcitrant Eddy Curry to the New York Knicks last fall, just before the start of the NBA season, and for a lot longer they've lacked a marquee star, a focal point for both the players on the floor and the fans in the stands. John Paxson has put together a terrific supporting cast with no one to support.
Coach Scott Skiles has made the most of his young players, and watching them in the playoffs against the Miami Heat has only added to my appreciation of them. Skiles hasn't allowed the players to be pigeonholed. Ben Gordon is the Bulls' best shooter, but he's expected to put the ball on the floor in their draw-and-kick offense, in which a player drives to penetrate the defense and when halted by a double-team looks for the open man. Kirk Hinrich is a prototypical point guard, but he's been encouraged to become a spot-up shooter as well. Forward Andres Nocioni is a scrappy player inside, but he also has a decent outside shot. Perhaps the most promising Bull of all, Luol Deng, who just turned 21, is a skillful open-court player and defender--all long, thin arms and legs--but he's developing the shooting touch to fit into the half-court offense.
The Bulls have actually turned their lack of a go-to guy into a strength. From game to game--and even moment to moment--Skiles shuffles the lineup to find the group with the right chemistry at this time against that opponent. The other team never knows where the Bulls' attack is going to come from. Though Gordon, Hinrich, Nocioni, and Deng constitute the team's core, Chris Duhon and even Jannero Pargo can squeeze themselves into key roles on good nights.
But in the environment Skiles has created that lets each player develop unfettered, each has revealed persistent holes in his game. For all his dramatics, Gordon has a distinctly un-Jordan-like tendency to fade into the background at some key junctures. Hinrich has a penchant for getting into foul trouble with his hard-nosed play, and that goes double (if not triple) for Nocioni. As for Deng, sometimes there seems to be nothing he can't do, but he still lacks the consistency to do it all the time. The biggest hole of all is inside. Tyson Chandler--who with Curry jumped from high school to the NBA and the Bulls--still doesn't have the soft touch to be even a decent offensive threat, much less the bulk to be an inside defender, and Michael Sweetney and Malik Allen don't have the size to match up with other teams' big men.
So the Bulls' first-round playoff series against the Heat was a clash of their new, multifaceted approach to basketball and coach Pat Riley's old-school emphasis on star power. The Heat offense went through two players, center Shaquille O'Neal and guard Dwyane Wade, who have very much the same dynamic that Shaq shared with Kobe Bryant when they were winning championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. In the first two games they were too much for Chicago. The Bulls rallied to make both games close in Miami, but they looked ready to be swept.
Only a few weeks before, fans had been debating whether it was even judicious for the Bulls to make the playoffs, where they were sure to be eliminated early. Perhaps it would be better to miss them and get a second shot in the NBA lottery for the top pick in the upcoming draft--they were already entitled to the Knicks' lottery pick because of the Curry deal. But the Bulls offense finally kicked in, and after falling to 29-39 in late March they won their last 6 games and 12 of their last 14 to finish .500 and claim not only a playoff spot but the seventh seed opposite the second-seeded Heat.
When the Bulls get to swarming and swirling they make basketball fresh and beautiful, like Ornette Coleman's free jazz, every player improvising within a loose framework. With the help of a little home cooking from the referees, the Bulls returned that beauty to the United Center last weekend. They swarmed Shaq like bees. Deng drove the lane to pin a third foul on him and put him on the bench in the first half, then Gordon did the same to sit him down with his fourth foul less than two minutes into the second half. The Bulls were running the draw-and-kick beautifully. Sweetney executed a classic pick-and-roll, only to pass out wide to Hinrich for an open three. Gordon followed with another three off a fast break, and the Bulls were up 65-56 and coasting to a 109-90 victory. Gordon, Hinrich, and Deng all topped 20 points, and Nocioni had 19; Hinrich added 11 assists. Technical fouls rained on Miami toward the end, with the Heat players exasperated by the officiating.
"Shaq being in foul trouble really changed the game," Deng said, and the Bulls went with the same game plan in the fourth game Sunday. It was as if the Heat star gave them an offensive focus, a target to aim at. Again they got three fouls on O'Neal in the first half, and this time it was Hinrich who pinned a fourth on him by driving the lane two minutes into the second half. Gordon made a lovely over-the-shoulder pass to a trailing Nocioni on a fast break to put the Bulls up 37-27, and as the game turned into more of a playoff slog, they kept grinding away with their motion offense. Again, Gordon and Hinrich topped 20 points, and Nocioni led with 24. More and more, he seemed the fans' favorite among the Bulls' equals, and the crowd chanted, "Noh-see-oh-nee!" When Chandler missed a pair of free throws at the end of the third quarter the Bulls lost momentum and the Heat clawed back, the ball going through Wade outside and O'Neal inside. But Duhon drove the lane and hit a floating shot to put the Bulls up for good at 85-83, then iced the win in the final minute with a pair of free throws. The 93-87 final squared the best-of-seven series.
"They did a great job of coming home and playing their game," a weary Riley said afterward. It must have seemed to him as if the Bulls had been playing downhill.
"When we go down there," Gordon said, "we've got to keep the snowball rolling." But last Sunday in Chicago the Bulls put up 31 free throws to Miami's 5, and nothing like that was going to happen in Miami, not with the league counting on the Heat and their marquee stars to advance deeper into the playoffs. In game five the Heat shot 41 free throws and won going away, 92-78, as the Bulls fell apart in the last quarter. But win or lose, the Bulls have shown us not only their own future but possibly the NBA's: team play ascendant over stars.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images.