In the waning moments of the first half of the first playoff game between the Bulls and the Philadelphia 76ers last Saturday, Charles Barkley went to the far end of the court and sat down. Michael Jordan was shooting free throws, and Barkley went to the other end, grabbed a towel from a ball boy, mopped his face, and sat down on the base of the Sixers' basket. It was the sort of thing someone might do during a break in a Saturday-morning game between friends: lounge at the far end, then, after the final free throw, step inbounds, call for the ball, take the long pass, and lay in an easy one. Scottie Pippen, standing at center court, kept an eye on Barkley, but when coach Phil Jackson called on Pippen to take a spot on the free-throw lane, Pippen pointed out Barkley to Horace Grant, whose face instantly broke out in a wide smile. Grant walked down the court, wagging his finger and smiling all the way, and Barkley--realizing the ruse was up--rose to greet him. They met near the Sixers' free-throw line, where they slapped hands and turned to wait for Jordan to finish up.
At its onset, the Bulls-Sixers playoff series had the feel of a neighborhood pickup game. For one thing, it looked like a neighborhood game. With both teams wearing black shoes for the playoffs--a trend the Bulls originated a couple of seasons ago, and the Sixers picked up on last year--the players looked as if they were wearing black Converse high tops instead of the pricey basketball shoes they endorse. (Of course, they're still wearing the usual shoes; it's just that they've either been exchanged for black models or they've been painted black with shoe polish.)
Likewise, these two teams are filled with players who look like normal neighborhood guys. Compared with the sculpted, weight-trained look of the modern professional jock, the Sixers' Rick Mahorn, Armon Gilliam, and yes, even Barkley, and the Bulls' Bill Cartwright and Stacey King all have the pudgy, rounded profiles of the weekend athlete. And the Sixers' seven-foot-seven-inch center Manute Bol looks like the guy picked by one team for the sole reason that he's so tall, while his Bulls' counterpart, Will Perdue, is simply someone chosen at the end to fill out the squad.
Of course, this is not a game to hold the school-yard court but the National Basketball Association playoffs, and these are two of the best teams in the league, meeting with their seasons on the line. If that needed any emphasis in light of Barkley's high jinks, Jordan provided it. He sank both free throws, then stole the ball as the Bulls pressured the inbounds pass, then made the basket at the buzzer to give the Bulls a 59-42 halftime lead. The Bulls went on to win game one of the seven-game series, 105-92. It wasn't even that close.
The Bulls opened the Sixers series with a blitzkrieg victory, just as they had opened the first-round series with a 126-85 shelling of the New York Knicks. The Knicks went down in three quick games, but the Knicks are a team--as it's commonly called around here--in disarray. The Sixers were hot off their own sweep, against the Bucks, including two wins to open the series in Milwaukee. Even the Bulls seemed a little awed by how easily the Sixers fell prey to the same trap as the Knicks.
The Bulls' trap is simple. Come out of the chute quickly and try to run up a big lead, double digits if possible. The goal is to create an urge to run--panic if possible--in the opposing team. The Bulls want the other team to run, because their advantage is in the speed, quickness, and pure athletic ability of Pippen, Grant, and Jordan. A team trying to run to get back in the game against the Bulls can quickly find itself clawing uphill against an avalanche, as the Knicks discovered. As Sixers coach Jim Lynam put it afterward, "You're not going to see a staggering number of turnovers. There were only six at the half. But when you turn the ball over against these guys, more often than not it's a dunk at the other end. So points per turnover are going to be very lopsided." The Sixers wouldn't bite on the running angle Saturday. They held to a slow course even after they fell behind 34-14. But they never seriously threatened the Bulls. Both Jordan and Barkley sat out the fourth quarter.
"It's the aggressiveness of our defense that changes the tempo of the game," Jackson said. "They didn't bring the game to us, we were taking the defense to the offense."
The additional key for the Bulls against the Sixers is the play of the centers when the game slows down. The Sixers have had success in the past by concentrating their defensive efforts on Jordan and waiting for someone else on the Bulls to beat them. "They were expecting Michael Jordan, they were ready for the double-team," Jackson said. So instead, the Bulls went inside to Bill Cartwright, who scored 12 points in the first quarter. He towers over the Sixers' Mahorn, a power forward forced to move into the middle when the Sixers traded Mike Gminski for Gilliam earlier in the season. When the 32-year-old Mahorn sits for a rest, so does the 33-year-old Cartwright, so that they remain at an equal level of freshness. In the battle of the backup centers Bol has a seven-inch height advantage over Perdue, but he is built like Spud Webb on stilts. He is the one player in the league capable of making Perdue look strong, skilled, and coordinated in comparison.
With Pippen and Jordan, the Bulls knew they had the edge on the perimeter. "Definitely, man for man, I feel that we're a lot quicker," said Pippen. Yet with Barkley, Mahorn, and Gilliam, the Sixers clearly had the beef. The Bulls needed Cartwright and Perdue to have big series, and the Knicks were uniquely well suited to prepare them for the Sixers. Cartwright began his career with the Knicks and practiced with Patrick Ewing for three seasons before coming to Chicago. He has always played well against Ewing, and the same was true of the recent series. Perdue, too, always seems more aggressive against Ewing, but for no rational reason. Jackson tried to explain his suddenly able play by saying, "He closed the season on a confident note. He was on the upbeat. He knew that he had basically won a large share of minutes at that post position, and he was really the sixth, seventh man coming off the bench, and I think he felt comfortable in that, being aggressive out there. He's just grown more confident in his game." In any case, they both had good series against the Knicks and entered the Sixers series in a state of high confidence. When Cartwright sat down with 12 points late in the first quarter and Perdue--a hero of the final game against the Knicks--replaced him, the fans gave a standing ovation, the first in memory for these two longtime scapegoats.
The Bulls were impressed with themselves and how easily they had prevailed after the first game, but they knew better. They expected a more physical contest last Monday. And Barkley--who scored 34 points but was the only Philadelphia player with more than 11--was already psyching himself up. He stormed through the Sixers' locker room afterward, naked to the waist and scolding reporters, saying, "Y'all been stroking us the last week telling us how good we are. Man, you got to do it every night. Fucking beating the Milwaukee Bucks ain't no great accomplishment." Then--as no young girls were available in the locker room--he walked over and spit in the trash basket.
Unwilling to let the two teams rumble, the referees called a close game at the outset of Monday's contest. Both Barkley and Jordan were called for technical fouls: that was what a tight rein the refs held. So, with the Sixers deprived of the muscle game they wanted, and with the Bulls called for the blind slaps they thrive on, what developed was that same feel of pickup basketball--only not between teams of guys who didn't know one another, but rather between two extremely sharp, well-acquainted neighborhood teams.
The game was tied at 33 at the first quarter. However the Bulls maintained the fast pace and pushed past the Sixers, outscoring them 29-20 in the second frame. After halftime the pace was hectic and hurried, each team waiting for the other to break. The Bulls staggered a bit in the fourth quarter but held on.
The key sequence--in my opinion and in the opinion of TV announcers Jim Durham and Johnny "Red" Kerr--came with the Bulls' third center, rookie Scott Williams, on the floor, midway through the fourth quarter. The refs called an even tighter game against Williams than they called against the rest of the players. Durham called attention to the double standard. "You can play physical in the playoffs," he said, "but you have to put in a full year in the league." Williams was called on a touchy foul, then was hit with a ridiculous three-second violation. The Sixers had the ball with the chance to pull within five. They came down, put four guys on one side of the court and Gilliam and his man, Williams, on the other. They went one-on-one. Williams blocked Gilliam's shot, pulled down the ball, passed to Jordan (almost giving the ball to a Sixers player on the way), followed Jordan upcourt in that broad-shouldered lumbering way of his, cut past Jordan, took a bullet pass from Jordan under the basket, and jammed the ball, giving the Bulls a 98-89 lead with six minutes to go.
After that, it was academic-- allowing, of course, for three great offensive rebounds by Grant, each one preserving the Bulls' wide lead at a time when the Sixers seemed about to turn the tables. The final score was 112-100; the Bulls held a 2-0 lead in the series.
SportsChannel aired Jackson's media conference afterward, but not Barkley's. Even cable, after all, has its limits.