Thanks to a steal or an unusually long rebound or some other fortuitous occurrence, Michael Jordan breaks free with the ball. He's alone on the far side of the court, and he's closing in on the basket. It's the moment every fan has been waiting for; like a tape-measure home run, it happens often enough to be familiar, but not often enough to be routine. Here comes a moment to be savored, and--unlike a tape-measure homer--everyone is alerted to it before it happens.
Last Saturday night, in a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Stadium, the Bulls' Horace Grant picked off a pass in the lane and dished it directly out to Jordan on the run, creating just such a moment. Jordan swept the pass out of the air and ahead into a dribble in one motion. Every fan in the Stadium rose to his or her feet. The standing ovation Jordan receives during the introductions is worth the price of admission in itself, but night in, night out it's guaranteed. This, on the other hand, was real mass rapture, and--while Jordan has been something less than a god this season--there was something almost religious about it, something reminiscent of those bits of illicitly obtained film footage showing Muslims circling the Great Shroud at Mecca, bowing and rising all at once. Jordan executed an energetic, right-handed slam dunk with a perpendicular approach--i.e., sideways to the basket--giving the Bulls a double-digit third-quarter lead they would hold and increase the rest of the way. Really, though, for that moment the Bulls could have been losing by 20 points and everyone would have been elated.
The National Basketball Association season is so long and drawn out, the last couple of times I've been out to the Stadium I went with the sole intention of watching Jordan and Scottie Pippen, with an eye on great plays rather than the functioning of the Bulls as a team. This is the way most fans watch basketball, and it's what separates them--myself included--from Sam Smith. Smith observes Jordan waving the players away so that he can go one-on-one, and he sees a ball hog who's endangering the team. The rest of us observe the same thing and think, hell, let team play wait a moment--this I gotta see. Unfortunately, the last couple of times I saw the Bulls it seemed to be the way the players--Pippen included--were watching Jordan, too.
The game a week ago last Tuesday, against the Denver Nuggets, was one of the more glaring examples. For one thing, the Nuggets are a poor team; they had won only one of every three games all season and were awaiting imminent elimination from playoff contention. For another, Jordan was on a roll; he had scored 51 points the week before to salvage a win in Washington against the Bullets. The Bulls had muffed the game in between, at home against the Orlando Magic, but that merely ended an eight-game winning streak. As for the Nuggets, although they're weak overall they brought in rookie-of-the-year contender Dikembe Mutombo and fellow Georgetown product Reggie Williams.
Mutombo had a poor game--he has faded in the second half--but Williams excelled, and I ate it up. He's always been one of my favorite players, and his failure to make it in the pros had depressed me when I allowed myself to think about it. A sharp collegian with a steady shot and tremendous defensive ability, he had come into the pros overweight (a familiar mistake, thinking he had to bulk up), had lost his shot, and had become a journeyman. He was cut from the Los Angeles Clippers last fall before the season started and appeared to be headed out of basketball. Yet he caught on with the Nuggets and has become their leading scorer. He's back to being whippet thin, with a high waist and still that same childlike face--no wrinkles and a nose that looks as if it hasn't yet developed. On this night he hit shots from places he wouldn't have even thought of shooting from previously and finished with 32 points--this against Pippen, one of the best defensive small forwards in the league. When asked afterward about the difference in Williams this season, Pippen said curtly, "Confidence," an opinion echoed by Jordan.
"From the two times we've seen him," Jordan said, "he's played with a lot of confidence. Tonight, he played like an all-star. He shot the ball well, he did all the necessary things down the stretch to keep that team in it.
"When I saw him a couple of years back, he was forcing a lot of things. Now, I think he's letting the game come to him."
When Jordan plays as he's been playing, the game doesn't seem merely to come to him; it seems to radiate out from him in all directions. The Bulls squandered a 22-point lead against the Nuggets, but in a crucial sequence in the fourth quarter--with both Pippen and Grant on the bench--Jordan took the game over. He finished with 50 points in leading the Bulls to a 116-103 win.
"Except for M.J. having a real good night," head coach Phil Jackson said, "we might've been in trouble."
Pippen led the rest of the Bulls with 16 points, but was overshadowed until one got to the numbers. He added 13 assists, 5 rebounds, and 3 steals. He also got off an impressive three-point play in the second quarter, when the Bulls were building their 22-point lead. He came down on the fast break and was fouled as, leaping, he pulled the ball in against his chest to protect it. After the foul, pushed directly under the basket, just before he landed, he forced the ball up off his chest and right into the hoop.
Over the last few seasons, Pippen has followed Jordan's lead to greatness, but of late I've been noticing their differences rather than their similarities. Jordan is fluid and deceptive in his movements. He's liquid and natural in everything he does, from his outside shot--rifled with spin one time down the court, arced up like a knuckleball the next--to his driving, in which he ripples through traffic like a stream passing over pebbles. He's volatile as mercury and just as difficult and dangerous to contain. Pippen is much more angular, in his features, his haircut, and his moves. His tiptoe jump shot is technically correct--all high elbows and a flick of the wrist--and on the drive he relies on quickness to knife his way to the basket. Jordan catches the ball on the outside with that stutter-step stop, draws himself up like a wave, and falls into a drive. In Pippen's most distinctive move, he gets the ball on the outside, drives toward the lane, stops, dribbles between his legs while backpedaling, then lowers his shoulder and goes again--a teenage hot rod backing up, spinning his wheels for traction, and peeling out.
For all their success--and the Bulls had won nine of ten going into last Saturday's game against the Cavs--there were worries that bad habits were developing, that Jordan was carrying the team. And he was. Yet even Sam Smith had to appreciate the difference in Jordan now from two or three seasons ago. He only waved his teammates off to go one-on-one when he found himself in an overwhelming mismatch. He was doing much of his scoring in open jump shots, cutting off picks set by the centers in the team's triangle scheme.
As Jackson said after Jordan's 50-point game, "When he shoots well from outside, it's very natural and he's in the flow and we just go to him. He got all those shots right out of our offense.
"It's not a case of isolation or having him do everything. It's just coming out of the flow of the game. They're finding him, he's playing well, they're hitting the guy with the hot hand. I think it's pretty comfortable the way it's going."
Yet there was a noticeable difference in the game against the Cavs. For one thing, the Cavs had the third-best record in the league, behind the Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers, and they had won five in a row and nine of ten. For another, they had come from behind and caught the Bulls in their last appearance at the Stadium--a defeat, Jackson said, that had left the Bulls "humiliated" and "embarrassed." One press-row reporter later said he heard the Bulls shouting "pay-back time" as they came up the stairs from their locker room before the game.
Jordan again dominated, finishing with 44, but the Bulls as a whole concentrated much more on a team game, beginning with an emphasis on running at every opportunity. They had had three days off since the win over the Nuggets. The Cavs were playing their fourth game in five nights. "It was tempo," Jackson said after the game. "It wasn't run, run, it was more or less find a tempo and make it ours, not theirs. And that was important for us."
Whatever, the Bulls went out to a 31-22 first-quarter lead, with Jordan scoring 15. He was electric, pirouetting through traffic for a lay-in, then putting a move on the Cavs' Mark Price that froze him in his tracks and led to a three-point play. The Cavs came back in the second quarter, however, and even took the lead at 47-45 before going to a lineup Jackson called simply "big size": 7-foot Brad Daugherty at center, surrounded by 6-11 John "Hot Rod" Williams and 6-10 Danny Ferry. "Big size" had given the Bulls fits in their previous loss to the Cavs, but Pippen went on the attack this time. "At times it has worked to their advantage," he said later. "But tonight I think it worked to our advantage. We utilized our quickness and got to the basket."
The Cavs' weariness showed in the third quarter, and the Bulls quickly put them away. Jordan led with 13 points in the period, but it was Pippen who took charge. He acted as playmaker and dealt out four assists in addition to scoring nine points. With just under four minutes to play in the third, he used a Will Perdue screen to set up a mismatch with the taller, slower Daugherty. It was Pippen, then, who waved the other Bulls away, and he drove past Daugherty for a slam dunk and a foul, completing the three-point play for a 13-point lead. Jordan's religious experience of a jam followed moments later.
"The first half, I didn't shoot well," Pippen said. "It was like three for ten, and I just wanted to go out and get myself going a little more the second half."
"He got the feeling," Jackson said. "He started off and got going, got on a roll the first couple of plays in the third quarter. We've been waiting for him to break out of a little slump.
"When he's decisive and aggressive playing basketball, he gives us another dimension. We don't have to rely on Michael to do the bulk of the scoring."
Talk of the impending playoffs was again thick in the Bulls' locker room after the game. Jackson said the playoffs were the only time "pay-back time" meant anything. And Pippen was even more forthright in discussing a possible Bulls-Cavs meeting in the Eastern Conference finals.
"We keep them thinking in the back of their minds that to get to the next level they're going to have to get through the Chicago Bulls," he said. "I wouldn't exactly say that we sent a message to them, but we realize this is a team--and they realize--that has been behind us the last few years. And for them to get to the next level, they're going to have to beat the Bulls."