"I thought it was a below-mediocre performance," snarled Bulls coach Scott Skiles, "and frankly I'm embarrassed by it."
Keep in mind the Bulls had just throttled the Atlanta Hawks 95-85 at the United Center. What a difference a couple of months makes.
The Bulls opened the season with nine straight losses before beating the Jazz in Utah--their first win on the long annual November road trip since the Michael Jordan era. It signaled a transformation. With a newfound defensive intensity that can be credited entirely to Skiles's hard-nosed coaching, they ran off a five-game win streak in December, then built on that with a seven-game streak in January. The last two of those wins came in a home-and-home pair with the New York Knicks, and both were punctuated by last shots that recalled the Bulls' glory days.
At the UC, the Bulls came from nine points down in the fourth quarter to nip the Knicks. Ballyhooed rookie Ben Gordon was key, as he had been throughout the Bulls' resurgence. Though he'd initially seemed tentative, literally out of his league, he was soon pouring in points with his erect, proud, stiff-necked style of play. He scored 14 in the fourth quarter to rally the Bulls, so it was ironic he was the only player who didn't take part in the game-winning basket. With the score tied at 84 in the final seconds, scruffy Argentine rookie Andres Nocioni blocked a shot by Trevor Ariza. Long, lean Tyson Chandler raced over and saved the ball from going out of bounds by flipping it to Kirk Hinrich, who passed ahead to Nocioni, who threw it into the middle to none other than slimmed-down center Eddy Curry, who was running the floor like a point guard. Curry scooped the desperation pass off his shoe tops and in one fluid motion rolled the ball up and off his fingertips like someone serving canapes to a king. The ball went in to give the Bulls the lead. When Chandler blocked a final New York shot, the sold-out crowd of 22,358--all of them Bulls loyalists, as the city's more disinterested basketball purists no doubt had their eyes on the Illinois-Northwestern game taking place simultaneously in Evanston--went crazy, as if the Bulls had just won the championship. Courtside fans embraced the players--and vice versa.
Two days later, in a holiday matinee at Madison Square Garden, the Bulls again came from behind in the last quarter, again rallied by Gordon. He scored 13 in the frame, and this time he finished off the game himself. After missing a running jumper in the lane that would have put the Bulls ahead, he got another chance on the Bulls' last possession, the score tied at 86. In a designed play, he brushed off his defender, the discarded Bulls phenom Jamal Crawford, on Chandler's screen. Hulking New York forward Mike Sweetney picked him up going down the side of the lane, but Gordon leaped, hovered, and lofted a one-handed rainmaker over Sweetney's outstretched arm--a high, arcing shot that dropped through the hoop and into the net with a tenth of a second on the clock. None other than Scottie Pippen, sitting in the front row, exulted.
With a win in their next game the Bulls could have reached .500 for the first time post-November since the championship days--but they lost in Boston to the Celtics. Then they came home for the game against the Hawks that caused Skiles so much grief. Gordon took shot after shot warming up, but in the game he looked like he'd hit the wall, the point where rookies find themselves wearied and in foreign territory, having never before played more than 30 or 35 games in a season. Gordon looked awful, as he had in Boston; so did his teenage fellow rookie, Luol Deng. The Bulls as a whole weren't much better, but fortunately for them the Hawks are one of the worst teams in the league. Gordon and Deng saw in Hinrich a shining example of how to deal with the wall. Now in his second season, Hinrich had built himself up during the off-season, and while Gordon and Deng were dying he was relentless, finishing with 23 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds. Racing around with the court sense of someone who must have dribbled through hallway traffic in fifth grade, Hinrich typically drew the defense and then fed the ball down low to Curry and Antonio Davis, who finished with 18 and 17 points. Even if the Bulls looked lethargic on the boards, they were typically ferocious in contesting shots, finishing with ten blocks, four by Chandler.
It seemed sort of curious--if not entirely out of character--for Skiles to be so irked by a fairly comfortable victory, but perhaps he had reasons beyond irritation. Perhaps he was sending the Bulls a message to expect more of themselves, as they were past the point where a win over a doormat was something to brag about. He seemed to be trying to instill yet more resolve in the team, and there were signs of it setting in.
Late in the game against the Hawks, Curry fouled Antoine Walker on a breakaway, sending him to the floor with a yank to his shoulder. Walker got up looking for a confrontation, but Curry, who'd earned a reputation as a Baby Huey in his first few years, ambled to the free-throw line as if to say, "Here I am, you know where to find me." When Walker found him, Curry faced him down.
The next night, having battled a snowstorm getting to Detroit, the Bulls had to defeat the defending-champion Pistons to get to .500. They trailed 47-44 at the half, as Richard Hamilton torched them for 25 points, but with the pesky Hinrich shifted onto him the Bulls came back to take a 72-68 lead after three quarters. Then the Bulls showed their mental toughness, keeping their cool while twice goading the Pistons into technical fouls. Hinrich hit a whirling turnaround jumper as the shot clock ran down to put the Bulls up by ten points, then drew an offensive foul on Hamilton at the other end. The Bulls won going away, 100-89, they were 19-19, and mere respectability suddenly seemed small potatoes. A sloppy loss last Saturday to the Celtics at the UC ended their latest win streak at five games, but they were 22-20 just past the midpoint of the season.
The playoffs beckoned.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Mcisaac/Getty Images.