By Ted Cox
When the New York Knicks showed up in Chicago for the National Basketball Association Eastern Conference semifinals, they had the bearing of a team that had long ago come to peace with the idea of losing to Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
The question was, did that make them an easy foe or did it make them more dangerous, infecting them with the careless confidence of someone with nothing to lose?
From the start of the series there was an added playoff intensity that had been lacking from the Bulls' three-game sweep of the Miami Heat. Before each of the first two games at the United Center, the locker rooms were nearly empty of players. Patrick Ewing was one of the few exceptions, but both days he was wired to his Walkman, stomping around and eating grapes. Where in previous years Ewing projected a smoldering determination from the moment he stepped off the bus outside the stadium, here he seemed to have to work himself into something approaching that state of mind. As a team, the Knicks eschewed black shoes for the playoffs this time around, and in the first two games they mostly abstained from the thuggish behavior that had marked the Pat Riley era in New York.
The Knicks and Bulls had met in five of the previous seven years in the playoffs, including each of the Bulls' three championship runs, and while the Knicks had won the last meeting, two years ago, that was the one time in the last 11 years that the Bulls didn't have Michael Jordan at their disposal. The Bulls seemed to recognize a whipped-dog carriage to the Knicks and at first were diplomatic, not wanting to rile an opponent ready and willing to be beaten. Yet as the first two games did find the Knicks fading down the stretch--ever so slightly in the first game, with Ewing missing a couple of key free throws, and then abundantly in the second game, whose entire fourth quarter proved to be a New York fiasco--the Bulls couldn't rein in their confidence. They may have been diplomatic, for the most part, off the court, but they were saying things on the court that got the Knicks angry.
The second game saw a decided increase in the tension between the two teams. In the third quarter, Ewing slipped and fell down just as the ball was being passed to him on the wing. He snagged it with one hand and called a time-out as Scottie Pippen clawed at the ball. For a moment Pippen straddled the prone Ewing. Then, as Ewing was trying to stand up, Pippen walked forward over him, spreading his legs to narrowly clear Ewing's head. Ewing was irate, but the incident ended there. His temper worsened as the Bulls pulled away in the fourth quarter, and eventually he almost attacked Bulls assistant coach Jim Cleamons. When Cleamons complained to both Chicago center Luc Longley and the referees that Ewing shouldn't be allowed to get away with his rough play in the post, Ewing had to be restrained.
Afterward, Pippen couldn't resist rubbing it in a little. "It's very unprofessional to let a coach get into your head," he said. "You can't let a coach on the sideline get involved in the game--especially an assistant coach."
The Knicks looked whipped leaving the floor, and their coach, Jeff Van Gundy--who mixes puppy dog eyes and a hangdog expression with a raspy voice reminiscent of Nicolas Cage at his most bedraggled--was practically chased out of the interview room by a lack of questions. The Knicks as a team were eager to leave; by the time we got into their locker room, after Van Gundy, Bulls coach Phil Jackson, Pippen, and Jordan had all spoken in the interview room, only Derek Harper remained. Ewing evidently had left cursing the Bulls in eloquent terms, and during the three days off before Saturday's third game, in New York, the Knicks talked themselves into a bit of courage. Ewing, Van Gundy, and Charles Oakley were all quoted as taking offense to the Bulls' arrogance, and Van Gundy cast Jordan in the role of schoolyard bully.
"They know they can talk and number 23 will back it up," Van Gundy said. "I'd be like that, too, if only I'd coached in the NBA with him on my team." Jordan, indeed, was the Bulls' trump card, and where he was concerned, the series followed a familiar pattern. After suffering a sprained back in the Heat series, Jordan came out firing and scored 44 points in the opener, carrying the Bulls to a 91-84 victory. "I didn't want to come out looking hurt, by no means," he said. "When they see you bleed, they're going to try to go for the blood. So I wanted to come out and look healthy and take some of the focus off my back." Having dominated the first game to the extent of taking his teammates out of it (only Pippen joined Jordan in double figures, with 11 points), he opened the second game trying to get everyone else involved. Nine minutes went by before Jordan scored. The Knicks were down only 61-59 going into the fourth quarter, but then they came apart and lost 91-80.
Yet the Bulls' apparent dominance was deceptive. The Knicks might not have been playing as dirty as before, but their defense was almost at peak level. In the second game, aside from Jordan, Ron Harper (remember that name, Bulls fans), who finished with 15, and, in the fourth quarter, Pippen, who started slowly but finished with 19, the Knicks kept the Bulls in check and controlled the tempo. "Ugly games, ugly basketball," Jordan said after the second win. The Bulls, in fact, looked mired in the mud for most of the second game, before Jackson opened the fourth quarter with a lineup that teamed starters Jordan, Pippen, and Dennis Rodman (clearly in his milieu with this style of play), with bench role players Steve Kerr and Bill Wennington. For three quarters the Bulls had been standing around, knocked off their blocks by the Knicks' defense. Kerr, however, began moving without the ball, creating spaces for Jordan and Pippen to operate in, and suddenly everything functioned smoothly.
"Well, that's my job," Kerr said, "as well as trying to hit some open jump shots. I'm supposed to get us into an offense, get everybody into their spots and make things click. Fortunately, it worked tonight in the fourth quarter. Bill Wennington and I had a couple of nice exchanges, and we were able to get into our offense. And when we're able to do that then we start to flow. I think the way for us to beat them is to just keep plugging away. Because for them to play that sort of defense for four quarters is just about impossible."
Yet emboldened by their own rhetoric, and with Oakley and John Starks both playing emotionally, the Knicks managed to carry that defensive intensity into overtime of the third game, even if it did lapse in the fourth quarter. Again the Knicks controlled the tempo throughout, this time with the help of a negligent officiating crew that included Hue Hollins, whose last-second foul call on Pippen two years ago allowed the Knicks to maintain home-court advantage in a series they won in seven games. The calls went against the Bulls throughout the third game, but never so severely as when the Bulls were called for three fouls--all of them ticky-tack and the last highly doubtful, as the Knicks' Willie Anderson simply fell down driving to the hoop--in the first minute of the fourth quarter. Put into the penalty situation early, which allowed the Knicks to shoot free throws on every foul, the Bulls nevertheless battled back, with Jordan leading the way. He was exceptional even by his own measure, scoring the Bulls' last ten points in regulation, and it seemed the Knicks again would fold if given the chance. A Pippen offensive rebound led to a Jordan three to make it 88-83 Knicks with just over a minute to play. Then Jordan hit again to make it 88-85. After an Oakley traveling call, Jordan came down and hit a three off the dribble over Derek Harper, tying the game at 88 and sending it into overtime. When Jordan rebounded his own missed shot and sank a layup the Bulls led 97-94. But Ewing, playing well in the clutch for the first time in the series, made two big baskets over Longley to put the Knicks in front 98-97, and when Oakley stripped Jordan of the ball in the final minute the game was over.
Toni Kukoc, out with a sprained back that had sent him to the hospital Friday, was sorely missed, both for his offense and for the mere time he'd have spent on the floor. After the five-minute overtime, Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman had all played more than a regulation 48 minutes, and the next game, thanks to NBC's wish to throw both games together on the weekend, was the following day. It was a game of streaks and hot stretches, as both teams gathered their resources from time to time to seize the initiative, only to spend themselves and turn it over to the other team. The Knicks dominated the early going but the Bulls led at the half. What was clear by then was that there might be an ebb and flow to the offensive and defensive intensity, but the Bulls owned the boards. Rodman, fresh from an appearance late the night before on Saturday Night Live, was killing the Knicks under the Bulls basket. The Knicks shot better than the Bulls for the game, but the Bulls pulled down 23 offensive rebounds compared with 4 for the Knicks, giving the Bulls 19 extra possessions.
In the second game, the Bulls had stopped the Knicks by turning up the defensive pressure and limiting them to one shot, with Rodman pulling down the ball more often than not. "Oh man, he controlled the game," Kerr had said afterward. "He completely controlled the game." That control was even more extensive in the fourth game. With the Knicks ready to respond to Pippen's verbal challenges, he fell into a funk. Jordan, tired, couldn't get his legs under his shot. Rodman, however, pulled the Bulls through the muck like a plow horse, and Ron Harper had a game four even better than his performance in the second back in Chicago, finishing with 18 points, half on threes that were sorely needed with Kukoc still back in Chicago.
Harper hit a three, was fouled, and added the free throw for a four-point play that put the Bulls up 70-68 in the third quarter. When an inadvertent (no, really) Jordan elbow sent Anderson sprawling, giving Jordan a rare uncontested shot, he hit a three to give the Bulls a 77-68 lead going into the fourth quarter. Kerr added a three early in the final frame to give the Bulls a double-digit lead, 80-69. Then the Knicks rallied. When Ewing hit a long, running one-handed jumper from beyond the free-throw line over Pippen, New York was back in front, 87-86, with two and a half minutes to play. And when Pippen badly missed a three-pointer, Ewing converted at the other end with another running jump shot, this one over Rodman.
Jordan gassed, Pippen in a funk, and Kukoc back in Chicago, with the Knicks up by three. What was Jackson to do? He had noticed by this time that the Knicks were overplaying the passing lanes. In the most unlikely and unexpected coaching call of the series, he put the ball in Rodman's hands and had him drive the lane. Rodman immediately found Wennington wide-open for a dunk.
One New York basket later, Pippen finally cut loose going to the hoop and Jordan hit him with a pass for a lay-in to keep the Bulls within one. Ewing, at last, was called for traveling, and Rodman again drove the lane and passed to Wennington, this time for a wide-open baseline jumper. He hit it to put the Bulls back in front, 92-91. Again the ball went to Ewing, and this time Jordan--in foul trouble throughout the game and now playing with five fouls, as was Rodman--double-teamed, cutting off Ewing's path to the lane and turning him to the baseline. Ewing put up a fallaway jumper and missed. Rodman pulled down the rebound and, erratic free-throw shooter that he is, immediately called a time-out before he could be fouled.
The Bulls got the ball inbounds to Jordan, who was fouled and who made both free throws. The Knicks came down the court in the final seconds needing a three-pointer to tie, and a chaotic play led Starks to stutter step as he got the ball. The referees called traveling--an instant before he put up a three that went in. The Bulls won 94-91 to take a 3-1 lead in the series.
All along, the Knicks had the mien of a team that was prepared to lose, if only it be allowed to lose with honor. In the end it was no gift of the Bulls; the Knicks earned the right to lose with honor.