While in Los Angeles last weekend, I overheard the Lakers described as a team of destiny. The person making the statement was one of those typical El Lay know-nothings, complete with a sweater thrown over his shoulders and the sleeves knotted around his neck. He went on to talk about how, it being the last year of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career, the Lakers were natural champions, and it's a sign of how insulated the city is that it took the person he was speaking to a good 30 seconds to say, "Yes, but what about the Chicago Bulls?"
The Bulls are reminding us all that the best team on paper does not always win the day, that sometimes things happen that no tout could predict, that the history of sport is filled with Cinderella teams that not only conducted themselves well but that sometimes managed to win everything at stake. They're doing so by winning games, of course, but they're doing that in an almost frightening manner. When the Bulls win against theoretically greater powers, they make it seem as if the other team was destined to lose, that the opponent, in fact, desired to lose. The Cleveland Cavaliers looked and played like a beaten team throughout their five-game series with the Bulls. Throughout the match, the Cavs' coach, Lenny Wilkens, wore a worried, beaten, hangdog expression--an expression of dread. The Knicks' Rick Pitino, normally the picture of confidence and cool, looked the same way. The Knicks prepared themselves for defeat in each game of the series, as had the Cavs, but where they differed was in the end--and even then there was no difference in the outcome. The Cavs, even when they took the lead in the waning moments of their final game with the Bulls, looked worried and anxious. The Knicks--in the final moments of game six, last Friday at the Chicago Stadium--looked determined and willful, even as they trailed by four points with 11 seconds to play. Only after tying the score and leaving the Bulls 6 seconds to play with the basketball did that worried expression return to Pitino's face. It returned for the same reason it returned to the face of Lenny Wilkens: Michael Jordan.
From about February on, this has clearly been Jordan's greatest season. Even before being shifted to point guard, he was doing more to raise the level of play of his teammates than he had ever done before, and diminishing the high level of his own game not at all. Think about the way he attempted, throughout the season, to pass off frequently in the early going of each game, trying to get his teammates--most noticeably Bill Cartwright and Scottie Pippen--off to good starts. That tendency only became more noticeable once Jordan shifted to point guard and started racking up triple doubles, a statistical feat (consisting of attaining double figures in three set categories: points, assists, and rebounds) most often associated with another player.
That man, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, was quoted, at the beginning of the year, as saying there were two players who reigned side by side as the best in basketball: himself and Larry Bird. That opinion must now be changed, and it may soon change further. Jordan strikes fear into opponents--the apprehension on the coaches' faces--in a way not even Johnson does. Johnson is a threat throughout the game. He elevates the play of his teammates and keeps them at that high level. Jordan has learned to do that too, while remaining the single most dreadful scoring threat and the almost unstoppable last-shot pressure shooter, a role he's retained on one team or another for almost the entire decade. The difference is essential: how does one react to the greenhouse effect slowly raising the temperature of the planet, and how does one react to a tornado when it descends from the sky? This threat is reflected in Jim Durham's radio commentary in the few games in which the Bulls have been blown out. "If we can just get to the fourth quarter within ten," he says, and as delightful as that sounds to Chicago fans it must be equally dreadful to opposition fans, players, and coaches.
Jordan is a fearsome presence. The one thing we kept noticing, over the course of the last few games, is the silly, blank expression he gets on his face when the Bulls break huddle from a time-out. His eyes are clear and empty; the eyebrows have fallen to the side of his face. His mouth is small and shut, the lips almost pursed. The walk is straight and without a hint of swagger. In no way does he tip the upcoming play, and reading his expression is like reading the grain of the wood on a newly waxed court floor. No one would want to see that face across a poker table, and no opponent can want to see it on the court.
There's no denying it: Michael Jordan is the main reason the Bulls are still alive. Yet he's not the only reason. Cartwright has played consistently well throughout the play-offs, especially against old practice mate Patrick Ewing. Cartwright just plain outplayed Ewing in at least one game of their series, the first, and he fought him to enough of a draw to allow the Bulls to win most of the rest of the time; a series between the Bulls and the Knicks that Ewing doesn't dominate is likely to be one Jordan does dominate.
The rest of the players have been erratic from man to man but consistent as a whole; what this means is that while no one has provided consistently strong support for Jordan, some two or three of the rest have played well in every game; whether those two be Pippen and Horace Grant one night, Pippen and Dave Corzine the next, or Grant and Charles Davis the next, no one can predict. Dave Corzine scoring 12 in the first half against the rough-and-tumble Pistons? Who can be the one team of destiny?
It's also time to say the Bulls have received some uniformly strong coaching from Doug Collins. He's sometimes depicted as the beneficiary of a wonderful gift--the man Jordan makes look good--but he has again and again rightly gauged the specific strengths and weaknesses of the opponents and found ways to adjust the Bulls' play accordingly. Against both Ewing and the Cavs' Brad Daugherty, the Bulls displayed a tough low-post double-team defense that had many of the strengths of a zone defense (illegal in pro ball) and few of its weaknesses. Grant has helped Cartwright and Corzine in defending the low post, without letting his rebounding go slack. This is just one of the tactics Collins has brought to the team. The other great strength he has is that, along with his senior assistants Tex Winter and John Bach and junior (in age relative to the others) assistant Phil Jackson, he prepares the team well for a specific opponent; it's a talent that has shone during these short series in which the Bulls beat the Cavs and won game one, last Sunday, against the Pistons--both teams the Bulls had failed to defeat during the regular season. Collins is a high-strung coach, heavy on motivating the players and preparing them mentally for the game--in tactics and approach--and he looks great when the Bulls are winning and awful when they're losing. Yet he's also becoming a focal point, as the camera zooms in, again and again, to catch his reactions to the feats of Michael Jordan.
Now come the hated Pistons, another in a series of teams the Bulls should have no chance against. The key game--after Sunday's victory--will be Saturday. The Bulls have played well whenever they've had time to prepare for a specific game (in addition to blitzing the Knicks right out of their series in the back-to-back contests of two weekends ago), and they will have had three full days to prepare for this one. If they lose, the series will once again be the Pistons' to lose, as it was before game one last Sunday.
In the Pistons and the Lakers, however, Jordan and the Bulls face the two poles of the NBA, the league's Scylla and Charybdis. The Pistons, with their muscle and their unsportsmanlike play, are masters at two qualities the Bulls do not emphasize at any position. The play of their three important players--the buttless and butt-headed center Bill Laimbeer, the bulletheaded, amply bottomed Mark Aguirre, and the thug forward Rick Mahorn--overshadows the contribution of the best and one essential player, Isiah Thomas. They are the Oakland Raiders of the National Basketball Association, and they deserve a good thrashing.
The Lakers--whom I heard so much about last weekend--are a different case. The Bulls match up well against them, in part because of the strengths of the individual players, in part because the Bulls as a team--aside from the one star player--are a bit underrated, just as the Lakers are a bit overrated. What the series would become, however--both in media presentation and in fact--is a battle between the two best players in basketball on fairly even terms. The Bulls run the basketball a lot better than the NBA know-it-alls think they do, and the series has all the potential to be quite memorable, pitting, as it does, two teams of destiny. Knock on wood, however. First, the series must be earned, and victory against the butcher boys from Detroit--if it comes--would indeed be so sweet that there wouldn't be enough time to savor it if it were the last set of games of the season.