Scottie Pippen, preparing to pass inbounds from just to the side of the Bulls basket, motioned for the photographer sitting at his feet to move back a little on the apron. With his back to the floor, he thanked the photographer for his cooperation by saying, "Check this out." Then he turned, took the ball from the referee, and, right on cue, lofted an inbounds alley-oop pass to a leaping Michael Jordan. Jordan missed the dunk--it's December, after all, perhaps the sloppiest month of the basketball season, and besides he was fouled on the play--but that was almost irrelevant. It was another moment to file away under the heading "Jordan-Pippen Highlights."
If Jordan is, as Bob Greene has recently suggested, the Babe Ruth of basketball, then Pippen is his Lou Gehrig. Since basketball is more of a team game than baseball is, Pippen suffers more in Jordan's absence than Gehrig suffered when Ruth was away. Pippen can't carry the Bulls the way Gehrig, from time to time, carried the Yankees, nor can he carry the Bulls the way Jordan sometimes does. Yet that doesn't tarnish the sparkling basketball Pippen and Jordan play when they're on the floor together. After last season, the playoffs, and the summer Olympics--11 months of uninterrupted teamwork--they're playing as well together as they ever have. And on almost any given December night, when the play is sloppy and apathetic, they're enough to assure a Chicago victory.
The Bulls returned home last Friday after their annual long early-season road trip dictated by the circus's run at the Chicago Stadium. They played well on the west coast, losing only to the Los Angeles Lakers in overtime, but staggered in a couple of tacked-on east-coast games in New York and Boston. Jordan sprained his left arch early in the game against the Knicks. He returned to play, but his shot was flat, his movement was restricted, and the Bulls had looked stiff from the get-go. The result was one of the worst defeats of the Jordan era, 112-75. Then Jordan sat out the game with the Celtics, another loss, 101-96.
He was back in action in the Stadium, however, against the Portland Trail Blazers, their opponents in the National Basketball Association finals last June. The Blazers were without starters Clyde Drexler and Jerome Kersey, but they led at the half, 47-45, regardless. Jordan had cruised through the first half, "waiting for the game to come to me, rather than force anything," he said later, but he and Pippen got rolling in the second half. The sequence that turned the game came after Jordan tied the score at 49 on a ten-foot jumper. Pippen then played strong defense on Portland's Tracy Murray, forcing a poor shot, and came down with the rebound. Portland guard Terry Porter hounded Pippen under the basket, but Pippen spun out of the traffic with a behind-the-back dribble. He passed the ball out on the wing to Jordan, who then passed back to Pippen driving down the lane, and Pippen was fouled going to the basket. Pippen made the first shot, missed the second, but Jordan was flying down the lane as soon as Pippen released the ball, and he executed a stunning one-handed rebound dunk that jolted a theretofore impassive crowd. From there it was Jordan and Pippen in a dueling highlight film. After the Bulls moved out to a 75-69 lead after three quarters, the Blazers' Cliff Robinson came off the court, his mouth agape as he looked up at the overhead scoreboard; it was an image familiar from the finals. When Jordan sat down for a few minutes in the fourth quarter, Pippen pushed the Bulls to a ten-point lead, scoring his 28th point of the night. Jordan, with 24 points already, returned to score three quick baskets and regain game-high honors, and he scored 14 of the Bulls' final 24 points as they won 111-99.
"I don't think we're where we finished the season last year," Jordan said afterward. "You can sense that even with the intensity of this game." Yet he and Pippen had been enough.
The play in which Pippen tipped the photographer about the oncoming alley-oop came the following night, against the visiting Celtics. That highlight aside, this was ugly, slushy December basketball. "I thought that was just a scintillating game, didn't you?" said head coach Phil Jackson facetiously. "How did everybody stay awake during that one? It was kind of like a baseball game, if you ask me--not to denigrate baseball." He called it more accurately "a grind-it-out game...two hours and ten minutes of fun."
Rodney McCray, the Bulls' major off-season acquisition, has been a bust so far this year. They tried to get him into this game by posting him up down low, near the basket. At one point in the second quarter, center Bill Cartwright rotated to the same side of the court and McCray failed to move, so that they were lined up like duck decoys along the free-throw lane, and the whole offense ground to a halt. Yet Scott Williams hit a long jump shot off the dribble from the top of the key to beat the 24-second buzzer and give the Bulls the lead, 37-36.
Williams is the only member of the Bulls who looks noticeably improved this year. In his third season, he still seems a big puppy with his gawky running style; but he has added some offensive moves to his already dependable defense and rebounding, and--now a veteran--he's getting more respect from the referees. Against Portland, he drove to the hoop with a behind-the-back dribble and made the shot, drew a foul, and completed a three-point play. His foul shooting has improved to the point where he was left on the floor in the closing minutes of the game; when he got the ball he was instantly fouled, but he made both shots to ice the victory. Against the Celtics, he was put in to guard Xavier McDaniel, the determined, shaven-headed forward who was such an irritant to Pippen in last spring's playoffs, when he was with the Knicks. McDaniel had 12 points midway through the second quarter, but Williams came in and shut him down completely. "That was really the telltale match-up for us," Jackson said later.
Leading Boston 49-42 at the half, the Bulls came out sluggish. The Celtics, in fact, regained the lead at 69-68, behind Kevin McHale and that peculiar, rotationless knuckleball shot of his. Yet McCray awoke to hit a three-pointer with four seconds to play in the third quarter. The Celtics tried to force a long inbounds pass, and Pippen picked it off. He dribbled quickly down and all but handed the ball to John Paxson, standing at the three-point line, who hit the shot. That's what's called a quick six in football, and it gave the Bulls a 75-69 lead.
The Celtics tried to rally in the fourth quarter but could never quite get over the hump. Both teams had played the night before, both looked tired, and both hunkered down with defense toward the end. The Celtics' Reggie Lewis had scored 32 against the Bulls in Boston, but with Jordan back his defensive responsibilities encroached on his offense (he finished with 12 points), and he also got into foul trouble. With five fouls, he was kept on Jordan, and the Bulls--as if they needed any added incentive--kept pounding the ball at Jordan until Lewis fouled out. Boston head coach Chris Ford was irate, telling one referee to "stick it right up the butt," an almost comical attempt to siphon a vicious sentiment through relatively innocent language. He avoided a technical foul that time, but not when McHale was whistled for an offensive foul in the final minute. McHale, who had been caught holding his arms up like an offensive lineman in football, drew a technical for protesting the call, and Ford was thrown out of the game moments later. Almost lost in the flurry was Pippen's great job on defense against McDaniel down the stretch, when he forced him into a traveling call one time down the court and swatted away his shot the next.
Only days before, the Boston Globe had run a story comparing Jordan's sprained arch to John Havlicek's careerending foot injury. Jordan admitted afterward to being winded during the game--in addition to the Boston contest, he had missed six days of practice--but emphasized that he was otherwise fully healthy and felt no pain. There was no more fitting team to prove it against than the Celtics. He began talking about payback, about the, Bulls' trip this week to Atlanta to play the Hawks, who beat the Bulls in their home opener last month. Then there's the upcoming grudge match with the Knicks on Christmas night. Jordan talked on to the reporters surrounding his locker, and it seemed he was already preparing to psych himself up for these December games so many teams and players have trouble with. There are times when it helps to be told to keep your eyes on Jordan, and other times when nothing could be less necessary.