After not mentioning the name of a certain minor-league baseball player in our last column, it's time we admitted that the Bulls miss Michael Jordan. They miss him not merely for his 30-points-a-game average and his infectious will to win, but because the team was designed to complement his talents. It's not that the Bulls have become a team of shooters--the elementary conclusion to be drawn from their play this season, especially of late. It's that these players have always been primarily shooters, shooters assigned to a certain spot on the floor, to create the proper spacing for Jordan to operate in and to act as safety valves when the opponents ganged up on him. Even this year's additions, Steve Kerr and Bill Wennington, seem to have been recruited to fill spot-up roles in the offense.
This isn't going to be an attack on the present Bulls. It's rather more a salute to how far they've come--though they still have far to go--considering the loss they sustained. Jordan's retirement removed the focal point of the offense. The Bulls have carried on and made their perimeter passing game stronger, almost as if by meditating on that emptiness at the center of the team (a Zen take on this dilemma that I'm sure coach Phil Jackson would appreciate). That sense of emptiness in the middle forced the Bulls to concentrate all the more on fundamentals, and for a while, right up to the all-star break, they thrived. But this is basketball, not Eastern philosophy, and in the end other teams found the weaknesses the Bulls were concealing.
Foremost among those weaknesses is, of course, that the Bulls are a team made up primarily of shooters. Scottie Pippen aside they have no skilled ball handlers, because with Pippen and Jordan on the floor there wasn't enough of the ball to go around. That's the great fantasy element of adding Toni Kukoc to the lineup. Would the Bulls have been able to run a truly ingenious three-prong attack at opponents by gradually working Kukoc into the mix? Just the idea of having a skillful ball distributor like Kukoc posted up down low, with Pippen and Jordan at the other points of assistant coach Tex Winter's triangle offense, getting ready to cut past Kukoc and into, oh lordy, who knows what sort of devious maneuver, must have had opposing coaches in fits of perspiration along about early October.
But wait; snap out of it. Let's get back to reality. Jordan's retirement has benefited Pippen; he has brought a confidence to his game that not many people thought him capable of. His outside shooting has quite often been marksmanlike, and he has developed a nifty turnaround jumper--all angled elbows and pointed feet, delivered with a balletic pirouette. Yet the increased responsibility has not been so beneficial for Kukoc. Like most rookies, he has played in fits and starts, game-winning bank shots mixed with crises in confidence. He is a talented and endearing player, there's no doubt about that. He enters the game with a sleepy-eyed gaze and his hair somehow slick, looking like the sidekick in those old Andy Hardy and Henry Aldrich movies, the one who drops by in the morning for a ride to school, compliments the parents as Henry slips him an extra flapjack, then provides comic relief the rest of the film. Kukoc, however, has too often displayed that character's befuddlement and too rarely his own ballyhooed talents on the basketball floor.
That really should have been expected. The transition from European basketball to the National Basketball Association is perhaps even more difficult than the transition from the major- college level to the pros. There are not only the longer season and the more demanding tactics--both problems for players fresh out of school--but also the immense differences in culture and language, changes that influence a European player's every waking minute. When proven European talents like the late Drazen Petrovic had struggled at first in the NBA, it was unreasonable to expect Kukoc to excel right off the bat, even if he was the best player in Europe and even if he did show flashes of brilliance early on.
Kukoc's development affected the Bulls after the all-star game, when it soon became apparent they needed someone who could make something happen off the dribble. The opponents got wise to the Bulls' perimeter passing game and started sticking to strict man-on-man defenses and contesting every briefly open shot. The Bulls, who seemed to be standing around waiting for open shots that never came, went into a funk. They revitalized themselves by turning the ball-handling role almost exclusively over to Pippen. Pippen is a skilled and talented creator, but at six feet seven inches tall he is also prone to turnovers in heavy traffic. That's been even more of a problem for the 6-foot-11 Kukoc. Meanwhile, B.J. Armstrong, the point guard, has never been a traditional playmaker in the mold of, say, Kevin Johnson of the Phoenix Suns. So what the Bulls have arrived at in their offense is a perimeter passing game spiced by Pippen drives, with occasional splashes of Kukoc or Armstrong driving the lane when things get too predictable.
After the Bulls' loss to the Atlanta Hawks two weeks ago, they went on a five-game winning streak, with Pippen running the offense most of the time. Then came last week's rough stretch of four games in five nights, beginning with a visit to the Knicks in New York. The Knicks double-teamed Pippen whenever possible and rotated their defense to contest every shot, and the result was a miserable night of shooting and an 87-78 loss. The Bulls rebounded the next night with a sloppy win over the Philadelphia 76ers (23 turnovers, 3 by Pippen, 4 by Kukoc), but then lost to the Nets in New Jersey 110-87, committing 21 turnovers (4 by Pippen, 3 by Kukoc, and an astounding 6 by Pete Myers).
Last Saturday's encounter with the Indiana Pacers, then, was the season in a nutshell. The game might have lacked a playoff atmosphere in the stands, but with the pretty, cocky Reggie Miller in town (that's both pretty, with his sunken eyes, and cocky, with his attitude, which goes well beyond the realm of being merely pretty cocky) there was audience passion to spare. And there was a playoff level of intensity on the floor. The Bulls were trying to atone for their two most recent road losses, while the Pacers were 35-31 on the season, in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, a game and a half out of sixth. Getting to sixth probably would earn the Pacers a first-round playoff meeting with the Bulls, who were in third behind the Knicks and the Hawks.
The Bulls came out sharp and energetic, especially Pippen, who drove for a smooth, one-handed bucket in the lane for the Bulls' first score. Minutes later, with his man, Derrick McKey, playing back to guard against the drive, Pippen pulled up and rifled in a long jumper to tie the game at 12.
Pippen is not only an athletic but an intelligent player, and he produced a delightful moment in that first quarter. Miller came up with a steal and went sprinting down the court for the hoop. Pippen was with him step for step, and Miller appeared to expect to be fouled. There is a lot of bad blood between these teams, and between these two players, who made a point of trying to show each other up in a series of meetings earlier in the season. So Miller plotted, quite clearly, to leap into Pippen, both to draw the foul and to allow his body to act as a buffer so that he could get the shot off for the possible three-point play. Pippen, however, did not foul him, and in fact began to drift off to the side. By the time Miller went up and into Pippen, Pippen had lured him well wide of the basket, so that Miller had a low-angle bank shot and muffed it.
Pippen was fouled with four seconds to play in the quarter, but missed both shots. Yet he intercepted the outlet pass off the rebound, and popped a three-pointer at the buzzer to give the Bulls a 31-18 lead. Then he completed a three-point play following an acrobatic tip-in, for a 34-24 advantage. The Bulls offense was working like a chalkboard drawing come to life. Kukoc, Pippen, and Jo Jo English were arrayed in an arc around the perimeter, with Kukoc at the top of the key and English at the baseline. Kerr took the ball from Kukoc while cutting around his screen to get the double-team, then spun and returned the ball to Kukoc. Pippen's man rotated to cover Kukoc, and he passed to Pippen. English's man rotated to cover Pippen, and he passed to English. English hit the 19-footer to keep the lead ten. At the end of the half, Kukoc, isolated on Miller, spun around him for a lay-in and a 58-46 lead.
Yet the game was like the season in that the Pacers caught up with the Bulls' tactics in the second half, just as the league as a whole has caught up with the Bulls since the all-star break. "They play defense like New York," said Jackson after the game. "They laid it on us that second half. They got up and smothered us. Balls on the floor were a danger, they banged us off screens. In the fourth quarter particularly it looked like we struggled to find a shot.
"It looked like a scrum match to me."
A telling moment occurred midway through the third quarter. Pippen drove the lane and was double-teamed, but the man open on the outside was Myers. Now, Myers is a likable player and an active defender, but he has shot only 44 percent on the season, and that has been a consistent 44 percent, not like Kukoc's hot-and-cold 44 percent. Pippen leaped and, rather than pass to an open Myers, spun and delivered the ball back to Bill Cartwright at the free-throw line.
Still, with the Bulls turning up the defense to match the Pacers-- at one point there were back-to-back 24-second violations at opposite ends of the floor--they managed to hold a 78-71 lead through three quarters.
Early in the fourth quarter, however, the Pacers put in a lineup that matched the athletic Ken Williams against Kukoc, and he made Kukoc look bad with a pair of alley-oop jams, the second one blind behind the head. The Bulls went cold and couldn't get anything going off the dribble--the story of their offensive droughts. Pippen stole the ball and drove the length of the court for one of his patented through-the-hoop-and-off-the-noggin slam dunks, to allow the Bulls to keep the lead at 82-79. Then Armstrong drove the lane, and this time the open Myers hooted for the ball. Armstrong delivered it, and Myers knocked the shot down--87-81 with under five minutes to play.
When Luc Longley converted a Pippen inbounds pass for a basket with one second on the shot clock, that gave the Bulls all the points they would need at 89-83 and just over three minutes to go. But the rest of the way was still nerve- racking, with the key plays being Myers blocking a Miller jumper at two minutes and Horace Grant making a tremendous save after Armstrong missed a three-pointer in the final minute. The ball caromed long. Grant ran it down and--leaping out of bounds-- hurled it back over his head, straight to Kerr. He was fouled with 16 seconds left, but made only one of the two shots for a 90-88 lead. McKey drove around Pippen but into traffic for the last-second shot, and Scott Williams swatted it down to give the Bulls the win.
The problem is that everyone, not just the Pacers, is playing the Bulls like the Knicks these days, and the Bulls are struggling to deal with it. After manufacturing open shots in the first half of the season, the Bulls have seen opposing teams seal those shots off, and the Bulls-- Pippen and, occasionally, Kukoc aside--don't have the speed or talent to earn their points any other way. Smart coaching is great; it worked wonders in the first half. But there comes a time when talent will usually win out, and that time--the playoffs--is fast approaching.