Expectations are a funny and dangerous thing in sports. So easily did the Bulls’ championship a year ago seem, in memory, to have been achieved that after the Bulls amassed the best regular-season record in the National Basketball Association everyone expected their run to a second championship to be equally easy. Then the New York Knicks came along in the second round of this year’s playoffs.
The Knicks, it turns out, are a strong team, a point that needed no emphasis after they split the first four games of their best-of-seven series with the Bulls. But for a late-season collapse, including a final loss to the lowly Atlanta Hawks, the Knicks would have won the Atlantic Division. Instead, they were caught by the Boston Celtics and forced into a first-round meeting with the Detroit Pistons. In hindsight, there was no better opening opponent. Like the Pistons, the Knicks play a physical, defense-oriented brand of basketball, and they learned everything they could from the Pistons in defeating them in the best-of-five series. The Knicks emerged a complete team. Not only are they better than the Pistons this year, they are probably better than the Pistons of last year. The Bulls’ losses in the first and fourth games aroused doubts that were painfully familiar–though almost forgotten. The same feeling followed the first game of last year’s NBA finals, when the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Bulls. The Bulls needed to find a way to win after that, and they need to find a way to win now. The moment simply came earlier and at a more appropriate time this season.
The Tribune’s Sam Smith had the most prophetic thing to say about the Bulls-Knicks series. Covering the Knicks and Pistons, he wrote that whoever advanced to play the Bulls, the series would be the basketball equivalent of a monster truck rally. That indeed is what it turned out to be. The Knicks threw sand in the gears of the Bulls’ vaunted triangle offense with a body-checking defense better suited to the Stanley Cup playoffs than the NBA playoffs. The referees, sensitive to charges that the Bulls won the championship a year ago on the strength of namby-pamby officiating, let the two teams play.
“I don’t know if the physical game–where there are no clean rebounds, there are no offensive breaks because of it, there are just bodies on bodies all the time–is going to make it a half-court game the length of the series or not,” head coach Phil Jackson said after the Bulls’ second-game victory. “It looks like if it’s going to be refereed this way and called this way that it’s going to be low-scoring all the way.
“We have to establish the fact that if we get in a half-court game, we can execute and get the job done.”
That was his position off the court, but on the court he pressured the referees as much as he could, and more than he should have in game four last Sunday, when he was ejected with his second technical foul of the game just before the end of the third quarter. Jackson had drawn an early technical as a gambit to influence the officiating. The second was unexpected–no doubt unwanted–and it left the Bulls in a funk. They led 67-66 after three, but without Jackson to steady them they soon fell behind and lost 93-86, allowing the Knicks to tie the series.
This isn’t to say Jackson’s complaints aren’t valid. As basketball players in the neoclassical-classical sense defined by the Bulls themselves–playing a game based on quickness, leaping ability, and shooting touch–the Knicks aren’t in the same league.
They are led by center Patrick Ewing, an athletic player, who suffers from that New York superstar syndrome in which he is both overrated and underappreciated. His revival is the single greatest cause for cheer in the Knicks’ newfound success: a great basketball player is once again playing great basketball. Aside from Ewing, however, the Knicks are an ugly, mean team. Former Chicagoan Charles Oakley was dealt to the Knicks for Bill Cartwright because his stolid play didn’t suit the Bulls’ new style. Xavier McDaniel, shaven-headed and bug-eyed, was picked up from the NBA scrap heap. Guard Gerald Wilkins is a hot dog with a high-top fade, cut to slant toward the back; while the rest of the players on both teams adopted the Bulls’ fad of wearing black shoes for the play-offs, Wilkins wore white shoes with black trim, giving him the look of someone trying to play basketball in spats. The other guard, Mark Jackson, looks like a drug dealer in New Jack City: he’s flat-headed, goateed, and with almost no shooting touch. He became a functional player when he learned to play within himself–i.e., dribble the ball across center court and get it to Ewing.
Yet their wins in the first and fourth games were no flukes. These former underachievers are guided by the team’s other notable success story: head coach Pat Riley. While he received little credit for the championships he won in Los Angeles with Earvin “Magic” Johnson and the Lakers, he is without a doubt the main reason for the Knicks’ turnaround–from a team that went down in three quick games with the Bulls in the first round of last year’s playoffs to the team that’s giving them all they can handle this year.
He explained their 94-89 game one win with this analysis of their defense against the Bulls’ triangle offense: “We know it a little better now. It’s a great offense, a very versatile offense, and it has some trigger points in it that we’re very conscious of. I think if you can take away some of the trigger points that ignite the offense, and flatten it out a little bit,” then you’ve got a chance.
Riley let his answer trail off, because if he had gone into too much detail the Bulls would know what to work on, but the actual tactics of the Knicks’ defense were plain. The Bulls’ triangle is based on individual improvisation within a team framework. The Knicks matched up with the Bulls in that framework, then–man on man–physically stepped in the Bulls’ way to disrupt their rhythm. If the triangle offense allows the Bulls to solo off set chord progressions, as in jazz, the Knicks, with their physical defense, forced the Bulls into waltz time, and what great jazz tune was ever done in waltz time? Of course, this relied on the referees allowing the Knicks to play that sort of defense. In my opinion, when an offensive player without the ball is running from here to there, and a defensive player steps in front of him, or puts his arms around him to slow him down, that’s a foul. Yet the referees know that if they were to call that sort of game, the Knicks wouldn’t have a chance, and they haven’t called that game because Riley has made it clear they need to play that way to win. Riley’s reputation gives these tactics a credibility they lack with the Pistons.
“You have to give New York credit,” Michael Jordan said after the first game. “They came in with a plan and they stuck with the plan.” Yet he also placed blame squarely upon himself and his teammates. “We totally got out of rhythm with the triangle play. We were not using our options well.”
In the first game, the Bulls came out utterly flat. Symptomatic were Cartwright missing both ends of a two-shot foul, Will Perdue doing the same twice, and Perdue also firing up a pair of long-range air balls. They were down 25-16 at the quarter and 46-38 at the half. The Bulls opened the second half playing with the intensity they lacked in the first half, but–in the sharpest coaching decision of the game–Riley substituted Anthony Mason, Greg Anthony, and John Starks all at once early in the third quarter.
“I just think we came out a little bit flat,” Riley said afterward. “I didn’t know how long I should wait to make that [decision]. I just think at the time we weren’t doing anything. I thought Greg and John are real defensive oriented and we just decided to make a change. We just were going south.”
The fresh legs of the Knicks’ substitutes allowed them to let the Bulls run out like a fish, then reel them back in. After the Bulls at one point closed to within one, the Knicks ran their lead from three back up to nine in the last two and a half minutes of the quarter, when Jordan had to rest.
In the fourth quarter, Ewing carried them through. Spotting up facing the basket, instead of posting up with his back to it, he hit shot after shot from the outside, finishing with 34 points. The Bulls at one point led by three, 82-79, but in the last two minutes John Paxson had an open jumper that went off the back rim, off the front rim, and out, and Scottie Pippen had one that went off the back rim and straight back at him. Ewing, meanwhile, was hitting everything he threw up. When he pulled down a rebound with the Knicks up 92-89 and 11 seconds left, he was fouled and then went around the court bumping bellies with his New York teammates.
The Bulls can and should beat the Knicks; they proved that in the second and third games of the series. Yet they also proved that there was cause for concern. Going to a full-court defense and using screens to set their outside shooters free, they moved out to an early lead in the second game. When B.J. Armstrong stripped Anthony, then dug for the basket with Anthony hot on his heels, leaving the ball for a trailing Horace Grant to dunk at the end, the Bulls were up 77-70 with four-plus minutes to play. Armstrong pumped his fist again and again and they cued up Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll (Part 2)” on the public-address system. The Knicks, however, came back to get within one at 79-78. That’s where they stopped, while the Bulls got one open shot from Armstrong, then another on what he later called a broken play. Jordan drove, was double-teamed, and dished out wide to Armstrong, who was quickly covered. Yet he got his man into the air with a pump fake, drove in, then, with Ewing coming over and swiping at the air, he arced a high shot that fell through the hoop like a snake going down a hole. The Bulls went on to win 86-78.
The third game, last Saturday, was an equally shaky win, although it was the best game of the series for the Bulls. They came out playing the same full-court defense, relying on outside screens to set their shooters free. With Pippen playing his best game of the series (he seemed fully healed from a sprained ankle he suffered in the first game), the Bulls went out to a 32-23 first-quarter lead. They had the game, really, in control for what felt like the first time in the series. Jordan expressed the team’s determination when, after being fouled at center court on an impending breakaway, he went the length of the floor anyway and jammed the ball. Yet, on a real breakaway late in the second quarter, with the Bulls up 48-39, he banged an attempted dunk off the back of the rim, and the Knicks and their fans were revitalized. New York closed to 51-50 at the half.
It took another Jordan dunk, putting the Bulls up 61-58, to break the spell. They went on to take a 71-64 lead through three quarters, and they kept the Knicks at arm’s length the rest of the way in a 94-86 victory.
As Jackson said after the second game, “It’s good for us. This game was really good in that we got ourselves into a situation where we got scared a little bit, they got back at us, one point, and we had to call a couple of time-outs and regroupÉ in a critical situation. It was time for us to step up and respond to playoff pressure.”
After their series with the Pistons, the Knicks seemed attuned to that sort of pressure, while the Bulls have had to remember how they dealt with it a year ago. To be sure, there are reasons to be worried. The Bulls’ starters played more minutes this season than they did last, and they were outhustled as well as outmuscled on Sunday. Can they play a full-court defense and remain fresh enough to rebound well? They’ve been reluctant to answer the Knicks’ physical pressure with the physical response they gave the Pistons a year ago, and Jackson appears to have lost confidence in Cliff Levingston, who usually excels in this sort of scrum game. They’ve been at the mercy of Pippen, coasting when he plays well and struggling when he doesn’t (he had 26 points last Saturday, half that on Sunday). Yet the Bulls remain content to live and die with Pippen, and to rely on brains against brawn; it’s what won for them last year and it’s what, still, should prevail for them this year.
We’re not worried, really we’re not.