The long break between the National Basketball Association semifinals and the finals was both surprising and welcome--like an intermission in a presentation of Shakespearean tragedy, except, of course, it wasn't clear whether the Bulls' season would come to a tragic end.
Still, the Bulls elevated their reputation--at least as far as I was concerned--from potential chokers to tragic heroes on a roll in the Eastern Conference championship series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Bulls' intelligence--their talent for analysis and their destructive penchant for self-analysis--is a large part of what's made them both successful and compelling over the last few seasons. That it proved to be their greatest hindrance is no surprise. Athletes, like the figures in great tragedies, should act and not think; their failure at that is what makes them identifiably human.
Yet the Bulls don't resemble Hamlet so much as they do Macbeth or, especially, Othello: this is a team that attained everything, that should have been happy. But the thought processes that made them exceptional became their greatest weakness--at least until midway through the series with the Cavaliers, when the Bulls suddenly seemed to turn self-analysis to their advantage. Would Othello be compelling if the Moor and Desdemona suddenly realized, after an intermission, that there had simply been a big misunderstanding, and they had Iago executed and lived happily ever after? As far as the Bulls are concerned, it would be fun to find out.
In the Cavs, the Bulls were faced with an opponent with a similar style and similar faults: a team with a preference for an open game (if not quite so open as the Bulls like, then certainly more open than the game of the Bulls' previous opponent, the New York Knicks) and a weakness for self-analysis. The Cavs have been a team of head cases ever since Michael Jordan ended their vainglorious season three years ago with what's become known as the Shot. This year's series, therefore, began with both teams playing true to their erratic selves; the first four games alternated blowouts. Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum went so far as to write a story attacking the two teams for their relentless psychobabble, as the players and coaches talked about energy (a favorite topic of Bulls coach Phil Jackson), intensity (Cleveland coach Lenny Wilkens's equivalent), pride (the Cavs' concern as a whole), and hunger (the Bulls didn't have it and wondered why).
Some people--foremost among them the daily sports columnists--were nauseated by this self-absorption, but I grew to like it. Most fans, and certainly most sportswriters, prefer the golden days when athletes were dullards and could be pegged with whatever meaning and significance a fan or writer desired. Today's athletes, however, are schooled in self-awareness; they all know that the best thinking is that Zen zone of nonthinking, but the process of getting oneself there--through the distractions of fan razzing, media bashing, and actual floor tactics--is a delicate one.
Scottie Pippen fought that battle with the most difficulty in the series with the Cavs. He might approach Michael Jordan's skills on the basketball court, but he has not yet approached Jordan's steely determination and unflinching self-confidence. The atmosphere surrounding the fifth game--the final shift in momentum, as it turned out--was the story in miniature. Pippen had played extremely well in the Bulls' first-game victory (29 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists) and also shone in the third game (23, 9, 7), but he was a nonfactor in the Bulls' losses in the second and fourth games. So the paper of record, the New York Times, in its news analysis a week ago last Wednesday--40 inches of the most important events in the world--followed blurbs concerning the bombing in Sarajevo and new deaths in the Middle East and continued fallout from the Los Angeles riots with the following item: "Basketball: What's With the Bulls' Scottie Pippen?" That sort of pressure has to get to one; it gets to me, and I'm not even Scottie Pippen.
Jordan, who plays head games to the detriment of his opponents and to the benefit (usually) of his teammates as well as anyone in the league, held forth in the Bulls' locker room before game five, while Pippen remained isolated (with most of the Bulls) in the no-media training room. "I anticipate a great game out of Scottie Pippen," Jordan said, sitting in his locker stall, relaxed and conversational. "He wants to prove to you guys that he's not a flop. If I was in his shoes, that's exactly how I'd feel."
So what Pippen did was fight through it. He drove aggressively to the hoop; he looked for his shot; he clawed for rebounds. He got no beneficial foul calls. In fact, his aggressive play earned him two early fouls and a stint on the Bulls' bench. And he got no rolls on the rim. In fact, he had one shot in, the ball seemingly halfway down the basket, but it hit the far rim, the near rim, and bounced out. And he made only two of six attempts from the foul line, where every shot was a struggle. Still, he scrapped to 14 points, 6 assists, and a game-high 15 rebounds as the Bulls fought the Cavs hard for three quarters and then blew them out by scoring the first 15 points of the final frame. Pippen punctuated the run with one of his patented, high-speed, bullet-train-mail-drop dunks, in which he burst through traffic on the fast break, leapt, got the ball up over the rim just in the nick of time, and then hung on while his momentum carried his body out horizontal to the floor, ten feet off the ground.
Jackson opened his postgame media conference apologizing for keeping everyone waiting. He had wanted to immediately impress on his team, in the locker room, the importance of carrying over that fourth-quarter energy to the next game. Then he talked about Pippen, indirectly and then directly.
The team opened "offensively a little out of sync," he said, "some guys trying just a little too hard and trying to get their games going and relying too much on effort, more than just letting the game flow.
"There was a lot of pressure on him [Pippen], and it was noticeable out there--on the free-throw line, etcetera--but his defense was great, his effort was terrific. After he loosened up a little bit and got back a feel for the game he started to play well."
Pippen did manage to carry that over to last Friday's sixth game, which he pretty much took over, finishing with 29 points. He opened with a steal, but lost the ball immediately to the Cavs' Craig Ehlo. Yet he stole the ball right back from Larry Nance, took it out, and--on the dribble--went right around the fleet Mike Sanders and jammed it home.
The Cavs, for their part, were involved in a heavy-duty case of what's commonly called denial. In the fifth game, sleepy-eyed guard Mark Price all but single-handedly kept the Cavs in the contest until they were blown out. When asked if his team could make any adjustments in the two days before the sixth game, Wilkens waspishly replied, "We really don't have to make that many adjustments. Fellas, we were in the game. You overlook that. We were in foul trouble." Foul trouble, however, doesn't just fall from the sky. The Bulls were attacking the basket and earning their fouls. The Cavs had no answer. It is, indeed, pride that pulls the country down.
Throughout the sixth game, both Pippen and Jordan kept driving to the basket, looking to dish to Horace Grant (who finished with 20 points) if not draw a foul. The Bulls led 26-21 at the quarter, and seemed to hold on to the initiative even though the Cavs rallied to tie it at 45 at the half. (This was the only close game of the series.) In the second half, however, the Cavs got their feet under them, while Jordan continued a game-long shooting slump (he made just 5 of 20 shots in the first three quarters). It took a double-teamed, desperation last-second shot by Pippen to tie the game at 72 at the end of the third.
The Cavs opened the fourth quarter hot, and when Pippen put up a shot that sat on the back rim, spinning like a top, until it rolled off, leaving the score 77-72 Cavs, it looked bad for the Bulls. After a rest, though, Jordan hit his first shot, and from there the Bulls held on until they could get all five of their starters rested and back in the game for the last four minutes or so. The pivotal hoop came with six and a half minutes to play, when Jordan drove past Terrell Brandon, jumped, and encountered a leaping Nance. The two of them hung in the air, with Jordan looking right, then left, then right again for the shot--like a fan at the back of standing room trying to catch a glimpse of the action--before finally forcing it up and through Nance's outstretched hand and into the hoop, with a foul called. The free throw made it 83-81 Cavs. The starting five had returned when John Paxson tied the score at 87, and with two minutes to play Pippen put the Bulls ahead 91-90 with an awkward one-footed shot from the top of the key. The Cavs' Price tied the score at 93 with a three-point field goal, but Jordan--who was now in his milieu, as they say in psychology texts and romantic novels--responded with a basket in traffic off the backboard, drawing a foul and completing the three-point play for a 96-93 lead with 37 seconds to play. The final was 99-94, giving the Bulls the series in six games.
An hour before the fifth game began, Jordan and Paxson were the only players sitting in the Bulls locker room. In answering questions, they kept working the conversations around to how the media were influencing perceptions and expectations, as if the two of them were guests on This Week With David Brinkley. After the game, Scott Williams--the most consistent player off the bench in the series with the Cavs--said the reports appearing in the media weren't important; it was how one used those reports to motivate oneself that counted. Several players echoed that sentiment over the next few days. When asked if the fourth quarter of the fifth game would build the Bulls' confidence for game six, Jordan replied, "We're going to use it as a confidence booster." The notion of using whatever presented itself to psych oneself up was thick in the air.
The Bulls have a tendency to drag other teams into their mental morass, unless the opponent is especially focused and mentally strong, as the Knicks were. The Cavs were ripe for the Bulls; the Bulls got them thinking, and from that point it was simply a contest of who would get their thinking focused the fastest. Now the Portland Trail Blazers arrive in town, on the surface a mirror image of the Bulls of a year ago. They seem to be playing almost on instinct, and they have athletes to rival the Bulls' in speed, quickness, and agility. It says here, however, that the Bulls--and the sheer pressure of the media attention--will get the Blazers thinking, that the four-day break will give Phil Jackson a chance to go deeper than the hippy-dippy holistic coaching he's indulged in this playoff season and back to the specific tactical attacks that won for the Bulls a year ago, that Jordan will outplay Clyde Drexler and Pippen will rise to the occasion, but that it will still take seven games for the Bulls to win.
Back in the locker room before the fifth game with the Cavs, Jordan said, "You've got to give us credit. Even though we're not playing the same type of basketball as last year, we're still scrapping. That's the mental aspect.
"As long as we win, we won't have too many complaints."
Afterward, when asked if the series against the Knicks and Cavs had toughened the Bulls, Jordan said they had "made us a more aware team, made us a better team. Hopefully, it's matured us quite a bit. We know we still have a long, hard fight ahead of us. It gets tougher from here on in. But we're here. Let's make the best of it."
The Bulls, although they're the defending champions, are a team rich with self-doubt. Through the last two series, though, they've found that self-doubt, in its proper portion, is an excellent substitute for hunger. It keeps one on one's toes. Tragedy may make for great theater, but in sports only one thing cures all ills: winning.