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The Bulls returned home last week having suffered their first loss–but little else–on their annual November swing through the west while the circus was in town. They lost to the Jazz in Utah–no disgrace there–and they lost starting center Luc Longley to a separated shoulder in a fluke bodysurfing accident in California. Yet they remained the class of the league, and they put their talents on immediate local display against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Ron Harper, out for the night with the flu, joined Longley on the bench, and Toni Kukoc started at point guard. The 6-11 Kukoc had to guard the Clippers’ Pooh Richardson, a player so small his name barely fits across the back of his jersey, and while that was a tough assignment for Kukoc, it led to a mismatch for the Bulls on offense. The Clippers assigned Richardson to guard Scottie Pippen, and after Michael Jordan hit a smooth turnaround jumper over Terry Dehere on the Bulls’ first possession, Pippen followed with a layup, a 17-foot jumper, and a three-point basket to put the Bulls up by the skunk score of 9-0. The Clippers finally got on the board with a Richardson jumper, but then the Bulls–having established their one-on-one dominance in the matchups–set out to establish their dominance in fundamental tactics.
Kukoc faked a jump shot and passed to Jordan directly under the hoop for an easy layup. Pippen passed to Kukoc cutting to the hoop for another layup. Kukoc responded in kind to Pippen and the Bulls led 18-12. Then Jordan cut around a Dennis Rodman screen and hit the open jumper. He followed with three nifty moves executed in the lane: the first a running, low-angle carom off the backboard; the second a three-point play that sent Dehere rolling his head in anguish at the referee’s whistle (“Fer crissakes,” he seemed to say, “isn’t there anything I’m allowed to do?”); and the third–the best of the bunch–a drive into the lane in which he was met by Brent Barry, the Clippers’ wiry, bouncy slam-dunk champion (he won the competition at last season’s all-star game), who leaped higher than Jordan but then drifted to earth as Jordan seemed to hang motionless in the air, waiting, waiting, and at last banked the ball in to give the Bulls a 33-20 lead. They held a 35-25 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
As impressive as that quarter was, however, it also showed that the Bulls had developed some slovenly habits while touring the Western Conference. Out there defense is considered a distasteful chore, and the Bulls fell into a pattern of allowing their offensive abilities to simply overwhelm the competition. The results, it’s true, were impressive. The Bulls returned home with a 16-1 record, having won 11 games by double-digit margins and only one by fewer than four points. In a season in which scoring is down dramatically (no rabbit in the NBA ball this season), they were averaging 103.8 points a game, tops in the NBA and close to last season’s league-leading 105.2, while cutting their points allowed from last season’s 92.9 to 88.5. Yet, somewhere out west the Bulls stopped playing intense defense, and their new bad habits began to show in the second quarter against the Clippers.
“The first team didn’t play any defense,” Jordan said afterward. “And that kept them in the game. We shot the ball well on offense, but the difference was we didn’t play any defense.” The Bulls ended the first half having made 63 percent of their shots from the field (Jordan led with 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting, while Pippen had 17 by making 8 of 12 shots), and holding a 20-11 advantage in assists, yet all they had to show for it was a five-point lead, 62-57.
The Bulls’ lack of defensive crispness would have direr consequences in their next two games last weekend: an 83-80 loss to the Miami Heat at the United Center and a 97-89 loss in Toronto. With a kinder, gentler Knicks team now in New York, the Heat have emerged as the Bulls’ toughest and most personal rival, mainly because so much of the Miami cast–from former New York coach Pat Riley on down–has running feuds with the Bulls. There is not only Riley but center Alonzo Mourning, a longtime nemesis at Charlotte who took personal affront to the Bulls’ first-round playoff sweep of the Heat last spring; guard-forward Dan Majerle, victimized by the Bulls in the NBA finals when he was with the Phoenix Suns; and point guard Tim Hardaway, who seems to bring the same scrappy, confrontational attitude into every game.
Saturday they beat the Bulls simply by outhustling them. A 17-15 Miami advantage in offensive rebounds led to a stunning 20-4 advantage in second-chance points. (Majerle’s game-winning three-pointer with two seconds to play was a third chance, after the Bulls twice failed to corral the rebound with the game tied in the final minute.) Yes, Rodman’s 18 rebounds were high for the game, and his 14 against the Clippers also tied for game high, but he will always get his rebounds; his defensive play is described more accurately by the fact that all three frontline starters for both the Clippers and the Heat scored in double figures. That included 19 points and 14 rebounds from the Clippers’ Loy Vaught, a decent player, but also 11 points and 14 rebounds from the Heat’s P.J. Brown.
The Raptors’ Popeye Jones followed with 18 rebounds Sunday, as Toronto beat the Bulls badly on the boards. Rodman had said on the Bulls’ road trip that the early part of the season bored him, and by the time the Bulls returned home his boredom had obviously become a problem. Without Longley the Bulls needed a more active performance by Rodman to take up the slack, and they weren’t getting it. The Clippers’ rookie center Lorenzen Wright scored 14 points against the Bulls, and Mourning scored 20 while adding 14 rebounds, 10 of those on the offensive end. Bulls coach Phil Jackson declined to name culprits in the loss to the Heat, but the end result wasn’t lost on him. “Our defense has been a little too giving,” he said. “Offensive rebounds and second shots have been the Achilles’ heel for us.”
The sheer size of the NBA’s 82-game schedule poses a dilemma: on one hand, a team wants to win as many of those games as possible in order to earn the best possible seeding in the playoffs; on the other, it wants to hide its most effective tactics from opponents, who would make adjustments. The Bulls have coasted on their offensive chemistry this season, playing tenacious defense only in spurts. They performed this way against the Raptors, turning a 49-48 halftime advantage into a double-digit lead early in the third quarter but then allowing the Raptors to gain control of the game.
The Bulls, to be realistic, probably won’t begin to really sharpen their defense until after the all-star break at mid-season. So Rodman’s lack of intensity, while frustrating, is also understandable. The NBA season is in part a poker game in which it is preferable to win by bluster and bluff, without showing one’s cards. So Rodman concentrates on rebounds, and leaves the pressure defense until later.
The big question becomes: Do the Bulls have hidden resources to draw on, while they wait for a more propitious moment in the season (as well as Longley’s return) to sharpen the teeth of their defense? Obviously there’s the bench, led by Kukoc, and when Kukoc shifted to the starting lineup against the Clippers the other backups faced extra playing time and new challenges. In the second quarter against the Clippers, Steve Kerr, Randy Brown, and Jason Caffey all came off the bench and immediately hit their first shots. Kerr added a running, left-handed bank shot over Richardson to put the Bulls up by ten, 51-41.
In the third quarter the starting five lost their offensive rhythm and labored to play adequate defense. Kukoc sat for a while, replaced by Kerr, who matched up better with Richardson. The Clippers claimed the lead before the Bulls scrambled back. Kukoc then came back in, this time replacing Bill Wennington. (How many players in the league can start a game at point guard and later sub at center?) He immediately hit a three-pointer to make it 77-73 Bulls. The Bulls led 81-78 at the end of three quarters, and to open the fourth Jackson tried the daring move of sitting both Jordan and Pippen and putting Kukoc, Rodman, Caffey, Kerr, and Brown on the court.
That group would play the next ten minutes and run the Bulls’ lead from 3 to 19. Vaught tried to intimidate them right off by smacking Brown in the head on a drive. Brown responded by shaking it off and executing a give-and-go with Kukoc for an open layup and an 88-82 lead. Kukoc pulled down a rebound, dribbled out, and hit Caffey on the run for a slam dunk. Moments later, Kukoc faked a drive down the lane, drew the defense, and found Caffey open on the baseline. Caffey rumbled in unmolested for a crushing jam to make it 94-86 and came down pumping his fist. From then on Caffey was unconscious, showing good lift on his mid-range jump shot and even finishing another fast break with a reverse slam dunk to give the Bulls a double-digit lead. He finished with 23 points, making 11 of 13 shots, and Kukoc had 12 assists as the Bulls coasted home, 114-96. Jordan and Pippen sat on the bench and cracked jokes.
Afterward, Jackson and Jordan explained that the Bulls’ reliance on their starters on the road trip had caused the first team to take it easy in practice, yielding more practice time for the backups. By the time Jackson put Kukoc, Kerr, Brown, and Caffey out there with Rodman against the Clippers, that unit had developed a strong chemistry. The Clippers, who thought they had the Bulls where they wanted them when they chased Pippen and Jordan from the game at the same time, were ambushed by the fresh legs and quickness of the Bulls’ bench.
“If our bench can outplay the other team’s bench,” Jordan said, “I’m pretty sure our starting five can hold off any other starting five.”
But that wasn’t the case against either the Heat or the Raptors. The Heat’s bench outscored the Bulls’ (Caffey regained consciousness), and the Raptors’ starting five outplayed the Bulls’; it was as simple as that. Early in the season or not, flashy offense or not, it’s defense that wins ball games in the NBA. Last weekend the Bulls got a reminder of that as painful as Longley’s separated shoulder.