By Ted Cox
Leave it to Dennis Rodman--who else?--to put the Bulls' entire season in pithy perspective. "No one gives us any credit for being an intelligent team," Rodman was quoted as saying after the Bulls had taken a 3-0 lead over the Orlando Magic in the NBA Eastern Conference finals. "They have a lot of enthusiastic-type players, but that doesn't win ball games. You have to win up here, in your mind," he said, and although we read it in the paper we could almost see him tapping his long fingers against his temple. "If you don't have your mind set to go to war, you're not going to win."
The Bulls have spoiled us. We are now at a point where watching any basketball game that doesn't involve them is unsatisfying. Every other team in the league, every college or high school team, has the things it likes to do and the ways it likes to do them. It's a matter of which team can run up and down the court doing the things it likes to do more often. Other coaches talk about intensity, and when they lose they insist--as the Magic's Brian Hill did against the Bulls, or as Jerry Sloan of the Utah Jazz did in the Western Conference finals against the Seattle SuperSonics--that the tactics are sound but the players' concentration was lacking.
The Bulls play fundamentally sound basketball. Their triangle offense and their versatile defense--in which they can switch assignments every time down the court--combine to give them an unpredictable array of tactics they can adapt to almost any situation. No other team in the league can handle their best game. But that's something that can be said of several teams. The difference in the Bulls is that they find a way to win when they're not playing their best game, when they don't have the energy or the intensity, and they find a way to keep their opponent from playing its best game. If the Bulls can't beat a team with beautiful basketball, as they did in the first game against the Magic, they'll drag that team into the mud and whip them in the trenches, winning ugly by frustrating the other team mentally, as they did in the third game. If they can't match the other team's emotional intensity, as was the case in the second game, they'll change their tactics to reinvigorate themselves. Of course, every once in a while Michael Jordan is going to go off like a rocket, as in Monday's finale when he scored 45 points. As coach Phil Jackson put it, the Bulls found a different way to win every game.
When the Bulls stomped the Magic by 38 points in the opener at the United Center, NBC analyst Bill Walton said the outcome wasn't about Xs or Os--that is, the tactics on the floor. He couldn't have been more wrong. What Jackson realizes is that tactics dictate temperament: when a team is prepared mentally for a game its players are apt to play with more confidence. To cite a basic example, Jackson has talked and written at length about how good defense tends to instill a unified team approach, while good offense--as in the case of Jordan--can sometimes separate a single player from the rest of the team. Tactics dictate temperament: it's an elementary concept that is lost on most other coaches and TV analysts. Walton is typical in seeing the game as two sets of guys running up and down, with the game going to the quicker and more aggressive bunch. Walton was a great player at UCLA and in the NBA, renowned for his intelligence. Yet having recently seen a game involving Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers on the Classic Sports Network--a typically sloppy contest dating from the 70s--we now regard Walton as a smart player in a dumb era, and a dumb analyst in a smarter era.
Let's return for a moment to the Bulls' win over the Knicks in the fourth game of the conference semifinals at Madison Square Garden. In the closing moments of a close game, with the Knicks overplaying the passing lanes and manhandling the Bulls' smaller, quicker players in their attempts to cut to the hoop, Jackson put the ball in Rodman's hands and asked him to act like a point guard. Think about that one for a second. A good coach never asks a player to do something he can't do. A great coach knows his players' abilities--even those the players haven't recognized in themselves--and challenges them to fulfill those abilities. In the playoffs, under heavy pressure, Jackson asked his power forward to play like a point guard, and Rodman twice drove the lane and both times found Bill Wennington for open baskets, the second of which put the Bulls in the lead for good in the final minute.
Nevertheless, the Magic's Brian Hill pegged Rodman as the Bulls' offensive weak link. He came up with a defensive scheme that assigned center Shaquille O'Neal to guard Rodman whenever possible. This, he thought, would allow O'Neal to roam far and wide, poach on his teammates' turf, and control the lane by double-teaming the Bulls on their drives to the basket. What he ignored was that his scheme would free Rodman to sweep the boards. What's more, left alone near the hoop Rodman began to look to score (no doubt at Jackson's urging). The Bulls played an all-around good game in the series opener, winning 121-83, but the key statistic was that the Bulls out-rebounded the Magic by an astounding 62-28. Rodman had 21 rebounds--the only player on either team to reach double figures in the category--he hit six of ten shots from the field for 13 points (a season high), and he had one lovely assist, a touch pass off an offensive rebound to Luc Longley under the hoop, who laid the ball up and in with the ease of someone tossing a hat onto the top shelf of a hall closet.
Afterward, Hill was contemptuous of his team's effort. "Rebounding is nothing but effort and attitude," he said. When lumbering Jon Koncak replaced Horace Grant--who came into the series hurt and left it after a gruesome three-car collision with O'Neal and Scottie Pippen in the first game--in the starting lineup for the second game, Hill persisted in assigning Rodman to O'Neal on defense, with Koncak covering Longley. The Magic had plenty of effort and plenty of attitude in this game, opening a 15-point lead at the half. Yet Rodman kept the Bulls in the game almost single-handedly, scoring ten points and pulling down eight rebounds. In the second half, Jackson called for the Bulls to crank up the defensive pressure and play a trapping full-court press. They still couldn't buy a basket, and fell 18 points down with just over six minutes to play. Then, as if wheels spinning in mud suddenly struck pavement, they held the Magic without a field goal for five minutes and closed within two points by the end of the quarter. Pippen actually could have tied it with a couple of last-second free throws that he missed.
The Magic by now was a rattled team, from the last scrubeenie on the bench right up through coach Hill. With Pippen hounding the Magic's talented point guard, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, Hill shifted him into the role of shooting guard and put the ball in backup Brian Shaw's hands, a move that couldn't have pleased the Bulls more. Hardaway had been the Magic's best player in the first game, scoring 38 points, but shifted to off guard he played without confidence and faded into the background. He wound up making only 6 of 15 shots from the floor as the Bulls won 93-88. Rodman, by the way, finished with 12 rebounds and a new season high of 15 points. Tactics dictate temperament.
Given three full days to prepare for the third game in Orlando, Hill offered nothing new. What sort of confidence did that instill in his team? After they'd been beaten twice, what good did it do to tell them to go out and play the same way, only this time at home? None whatsoever. The same flaws apparent in the Magic a year ago, when they were swept by the Houston Rockets in the NBA finals, were once again glaring. Orlando general manager Pat Williams had put together an excellent six-man team, with O'Neal inside, shooters Shaw, Dennis Scott, and Nick Anderson outside, and Hardaway commuting between them, plus Grant as the inside rebounding strength and emotional cement. But Hardaway aside, this was not a team of prodigious offensive abilities--none of the three shooters was capable of consistently putting the ball on the floor and going to the hoop--and in the end they were left with limited options. During the regular season the Magic fed O'Neal in the post, waited for the double team to come, then passed outside to an open shooter. But with the Bulls playing Longley (if not Rodman) straight up on O'Neal, Orlando's shooters dried up like cut flowers left out in the sun.
With an injured Anderson joining Grant and Brian Shaw on the bench for the fourth game--a stiff neck sidelined Shaw for both games last weekend--the Magic tried to get more offense by sending Donald Royal and Anthony Bowie cutting to the hoop. The Magic seized the initiative and led by nine at the half. Pippen had carried the Bulls in the third game with 27 points, while Jordan scored only 17. So Jordan was due. He hit his first seven shots and kept the Bulls within striking distance. In the second half the Bulls again swarmed unpredictably on defense, forcing a turnover on the Magic's inbounds pass to start the third quarter. When Steve Kerr nailed a three to put the Bulls ahead 74-73 at the end of the quarter the Magic was done.
Jordan cut around a screen and hit an open jumper to give the Bulls a 92-82 lead. Soon he sank the dagger, a three out of a fast break to reassert a ten-point lead, 95-85, in the closing minutes. The series was summed up with 65 seconds to play and the Bulls ahead by seven. Scott went to the free throw line and missed both shots. Rodman rebounded the ball, was fouled instantly, and, erratic free throw shooter that he is, swished both foul shots to put the Bulls up nine. The sweep was complete.
Unless the Sonics are in the process of pulling off one of their classic chokes, the Bulls await a team of truly prodigious talents, a younger team that matches up well with them offensively. Yet the Sonics, like the Blazers of four years ago (like the Walton Blazers of almost 20 years ago, for that matter), are a stupid team that has grown fat on the thoughtless pantywaist basketball played out west. They took a 3-1 lead on the Jazz, a truly one-dimensional squad, by running two guys at John Stockton to short-circuit Utah's trademark pick-and-roll between Stockton and Karl Malone. Without that play the Jazz would be helpless. (The Bulls would beat Utah four straight.) The Bulls, however, are a team of many more offensive facets. They might even go to Longley as an offensive threat, as Seattle is even weaker at center than the Bulls are. Defensively, the Bulls will put Pippen on Gary Payton, get the ball out of his hands, and generally muddle the Sonics' offense. When the Sonics bring out their best lineup, with Sam Perkins coming off the bench to play center, roam the perimeter, and shoot the three-pointer, the Bulls probably will counter with Toni Kukoc, whose minimal defensive abilities are well suited to guarding a spot-up shooter like Perkins, and whose versatile offensive game should give Perkins fits on the other end of the court.
The Bulls are a mentally strong team that has spent the entire season in the media spotlight. The Sonics are a team with a recent history of choking in the playoffs. The franchise hasn't been to the finals since 1979. Look for Jackson to throw one of his trademark mind fucks at them, the way in 1992 he leaked the Bulls' scouting report that said the Blazers would choke if given the chance, thus siccing 500 reporters on them just as the series was about to begin. Turn up the pressure on the Sonics, take them out of their game, above all make them think--a weak spot of almost all NBA teams--and let the Bulls' skill at managing tight contests prevail.
The Sonics have the players to give the Bulls problems, but not the brains. Call in the cats and dogs, Chicagoans, and prepare for more riotous good fun: Bulls winning at the UC in six games.