Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc worked a give-and-go in the open court, with Pippen steaming in for a one-handed slam dunk. Then Michael Jordan dunked on a sweet assist from B.J. Armstrong, cranking the crowd up to full-throat hysteria, even though it was still only the first quarter. Then Kukoc stole the ball, dribbled down the left sideline, and passed long to Armstrong, who was barely able to get a hand on it and tip it back toward the basket as he sailed out of bounds under the backboard. Jordan was sailing behind, directly under the hoop, when the ball came his way, and he quickly grabbed it and tucked it over the front rim, but too hard off the back iron. Yet who should be following right behind him but Pippen, who stuffed the rebound. Shell-shocked Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Fratello called a time-out, but on the next possession Kukoc slapped a rebound out past center court, where the only two players standing around were Pippen and Armstrong. Pippen grabbed the ball, handed it to Armstrong, and quickly spun around to make sure no one was following them, as if they were two punks working a scam. Armstrong then graciously handed the ball back to Pippen, who dunked it through the hoop. Then, at the head of a three-on-two fast break, Kukoc made a flashy backhand trailer pass to Pippen, who passed to Jordan on the right wing, who threaded a pass through traffic back to Kukoc, who by this time was standing just to the left of the basket and threw down a two-handed dunk.
Five straight baskets on slam dunks, all created by intricate team play and lovely passing, each one going off like a skyrocket in the finale of a fireworks display, almost too close together to compare them. Coach Phil Jackson had been complaining about too many scouts studying the Bulls since Jordan returned to the team last month, but he must have wished that every scout in the league could have seen this sequence: it was beautiful basketball, fearsome in how inevitable it all seemed. Jordan was only playing his ninth game since ending his retirement, but already he was back in sync with Pippen and Armstrong, and Kukoc had now woven his way in. It was once again the Bulls, not just Jordan, who were something to see.
After that game, last Friday night, the Bulls from Jackson and Jordan on down spoke in measured tones about how the team was adjusting to Jordan's return. Certainly, it was anything but easy to suddenly accommodate a player who would take more than 25 shots a game (an area few Bulls reached even on an extraordinarily hot shooting night before his comeback). And the following game, a miserable effort in Cleveland Sunday, showed how appropriate that humility was. Still, everyone seemed satisfied that things were proceeding on schedule as the team attempted to reach some level of consistency heading into the playoffs. The Bulls' loss in the second game of that home-and-home series with the Cavs last weekend ended a six-game winning streak. And as bad as they played, they still had a chance to win at the buzzer.
While Jordan has struggled, as expected, with his shot, which seems to have a flatter trajectory than before his retirement, his all-around play, especially on defense, has quickly returned to his previous high standards. "Our defense has really improved," Armstrong said after Friday's game. "Defensively, we became a much better ball club. And that's what Michael has brought to the team, his presence," especially with steals and greasing the wheels of the Bulls' oftentimes complex double-teaming scheme on defense. Beautiful as Jordan, Pippen, Armstrong, and Kukoc were in the open court in the first quarter against the Cavs last Friday, the most convincing aspect of their play was the way the fast breaks flowed naturally from the team's solid defense.
That said, the most important game for the Bulls, where their playoff readiness was concerned, was probably Jordan's first game back in New York City, against the Knicks late last month. It was only the fifth game of his comeback, but he was at the peak of his powers, scoring 20 in the first quarter, 35 in the first half, and 49 at the end of the third quarter on his way to 55 for the night--a National Basketball Association season high. If his previous game, in Atlanta against the Hawks, had settled the issue of whether Jordan still had a flair for game-winning shots, the Madison Square Garden contest settled the issue of whether Jordan was ready to pick up his game under the heightened pressure and scrutiny of the playoffs. What's more, he delivered a crushing psychic blow to the Knicks' John Starks, who watched Jordan soar over and run around him the entire game. And when Jordan finished with the game-winning assist, drawing the double-team from Starks and Patrick Ewing and then delivering a crisp pass to the wide-open Bill Wennington under the basket (only his second assist of the night), it was the piece de resistance, reestablishing that, no matter how much Jordan thrives in the spotlight, he continues to hold the defining attitude of his maturity, the one aspect that completed his game, the willingness to do anything necessary to win--even pass the ball. It would have been hard, beforehand, to construct a more perfect game for reestablishing the Bulls' credentials as title contenders.
The Bulls were sixth in the eastern conference and heading for a first-round meeting with the Knicks when Jordan rejoined them. The home-and-home series with the fifth-place Cavs was even then being anticipated as critical for the Bulls. Yet, by the time the Cavs trudged into town last Friday, the Bulls had already passed them. And even after splitting the series, the Bulls still led the Cavs by a game, putting the Bulls on schedule to meet the Charlotte Hornets in the first round of the playoffs.
After their first-quarter flurry Friday night, the Bulls pretty much coasted home. Jordan suffered through another erratic shooting night at the United Center, but the rest of his game was solid. And both Pippen and Armstrong seemed comfortable taking hold of the game at critical moments, attributes they developed during Jordan's sabbatical. The Bulls maintained a double-digit lead for most of the first half, then pushed it out to 15 early in the third quarter. Then, however, the Cavs rallied to within eight. At that point, Armstrong became assertive, driving for a lovely running jump shot down the court, then backing Cleveland's Mark Price in and hitting a turnaround jumper the next possession. Pippen in the first half had single-handedly pulled the Bulls through one of their trademark doldrum periods when Jordan was on the bench (remember those?), then added a couple of the more important baskets down the stretch. He got the ball in transition near the three-point line, looked at his toes (he is no longer wearing the Air Jordans he sported just before and after Jordan's return), faked the shot, watched John "Hot Rod" Williams sail by, then dribbled a step left and hit the three to give the Bulls an 88-72 lead. Then, with two minutes to play and the Cavs trying to put together a rally, Jordan drove the lane, was fouled--no call--and slapped the ball back to Pippen at the top of the key. He hit it to give the Bulls a 96-86 lead. Cue "Rock & Roll Part 2" on the way to a 97-88 victory. Jordan made only 9 of 27 shots for a game-high 28 points, but more important were his game-high nine assists and tied-for-game-high eight rebounds. Pippen, Kukoc, and Armstrong, by the way, combined for 55 points on 24-of-36 shooting, two-thirds to more than even out Jordan's one-third.
"It's very nice to be running down the court and have Michael on one side and Pippen on the other side and B.J. in the corner waiting for his shot," Kukoc said afterward. "What else?"
What else indeed. But that sort of chemistry is still elusive ten games into Jordan's comeback. Sunday, the Cavs won the race to every loose ball and kept the Bulls from running. That left the Bulls trying to get their half-court offense in sync against the Cavs' tenacious double- and triple-teaming defense, and they never got going. As well--or as poorly--as Jordan, Pippen, Armstrong, and Kukoc play from night to night, they still need a certain minimal production out of the center position to make things work.
"It's basically a rebounding, picking position," Jackson said after Friday's game, "a guy who eats up space and gets loose rebounds."
"We're facilitators, mostly," Luc Longley said after tying for the team lead in Friday's game with eight rebounds. "Rebound, set picks, play D, clog the middle." He added that these diminished responsibilities made it easier for the centers to play well.
Still, the Bulls' centers didn't facilitate anything Sunday. As badly as the Bulls' big four position players performed, the centers were worse. Will Perdue has actually gone backward since Jordan rejoined the team. This season Perdue has proved, once and for all, that he does have NBA abilities, but rebounding and setting picks are not foremost among them. Perdue's passing and shooting were better suited to the wide-open Bulls without Jordan. As for Longley, he has never gotten himself in sync after missing the early part of the season with a stress fracture in his left leg, although of the three centers he seems the one best suited to the roles of rebounding and setting picks. Wennington has Bill Cartwright's shot from 10 feet, but not Cartwright's defensive credibility with the refs, which is probably 75 percent of NBA low-post defense. Of the backup power forwards, Corie Blount is more erratic than any of the centers, and as a rookie Dickey Simpkins will not get a call in the playoffs.
If the NBA were a four-on-four church league, the Bulls would be odds-on favorites to win the title. But without some solid play in the middle to give them consistency, to enable them to weather the inevitable rough stretches of working a new player into the mix, their title hopes remain doubtful. Still, from moment to moment they can produce basketball of startling beauty. The problem with that is that beauty is fleeting.
What fireworks display ends on a note of satisfaction? A spectator always wants one more burst of color, one more pop before the silence.