Craft is far weaker than necessity. — Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
Rarely has a sports team done such a complete and rapid about-face as the Bulls between the sixth and seventh games of their playoff series with the New York Knicks. The Bulls ended the sixth game in New York a week ago Thursday a team in disarray. The Knicks had taken the Bulls out of their graceful, fluid style of basketball throughout the series, and by the end of game six they seemed to have broken the Bulls down completely, leaving them without a clue about how to proceed. Yet when the opening tip went up on game seven last Sunday here in Chicago, the Bulls were back to their old selves. With Michael Jordan leading the way, they cut to the hoop, they shot with confidence, they filled passing lanes on defense. New York head coach Pat Riley, who opened the series with the pithiest comment after game one–“We came here to win, we didn’t come here to play”–finished it in similar fashion, saying of the Bulls, “They played like they are.” It was about time.
The Bulls might have found a way to win in any case, but they got the shift in momentum they needed before the seventh game even began, when the league assigned Jake O’Donnell’s officiating crew to the contest. There’s no intimation of hanky-panky there–O’Donnell is one of the most respected referees in the league, and it was the only game the crew worked in the series–it’s just that he calls a tight, controlled game, no patty fingers, and that suited the Bulls better than it suited the Knicks, and the Bulls knew it. (It’s reported in Sam Smith’s Jordan Rules that when O’Donnell was assigned to a game in a similarly hard-fought series between the Bulls and the Philadelphia 76ers last year, Jordan’s response was “We win,” and of course they did.) Riley later denied that the referees made a difference, but they clearly gave the Bulls the confidence to attempt to play Bulls basketball again. It had seemed, for a while, that they’d forgotten how.
The fifth game, a week ago Tuesday in Chicago, was grueling, ugly basketball. Faced with an even series and an inconsistent shooting touch, the Bulls had to content themselves with playing the Knicks’ game. Each possession, for both teams, seemed to go 20 seconds into the shot clock. In fact, the Bulls committed two 24-second violations in the first five minutes of the game and another on their first possession of the second half. While the Bulls of a year ago prided themselves on their ability to think the sport through–to find weaknesses in their opponents to exploit from game to game–they had clearly come up with nothing of the sort against the Knicks. The Bulls thought twice about pulling up for jump shots, lowered their heads, and drove to the hoop. If the shot didn’t fall–and most didn’t–a scramble ensued. No doubt this kind of ball was difficult to play, and it was hard to watch; afterward, I felt as if I’d held a sit-up for two and a half hours.
Yet the Bulls emerged with a 96-88 victory and the lead in the series. In the first half, the shaven-headed dervish Xavier McDaniel was the only person playing decently for the Knicks. He had 18 points by intermission. And the Knicks committed two flagrant fouls–the malicious takedowns that give the opponents both a pair of foul shots and the ball back immediately. Yet the Bulls’ Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant missed all four of those free throws, and the Bulls committed turnovers on the following possessions, meaning they got no points out of a possible eight. “We kept them in the game with our own ineptitude,” Jackson said afterward.
The Bulls led 22-18 at the quarter, then went out to 30-19 before Riley called a time-out and calmed his team. The Knicks put together three straight baskets to get back within five, and while the Bulls never fell behind, they never led by more than eight the rest of the way. In the final quarter, the Bulls’ offensive pattern was to come down on offense, stand around, wait for the 24-second clock to run down, and let either Jordan or B.J. Armstrong–depending on who had the ball–take the shot. Thanks to some inspired defensive play by Scottie Pippen, the Bulls held the Knicks off.
And after the Bulls had complained about the lax officiating in the first four games, this was the cleanest contest of the series up to that point. McDaniel said the Bulls had whined their way to the lead.
“That’s what Xavier said?” Jordan responded. “So what? A win’s a win.
“I’d much rather see us open up a game, where everything’s clicking for us offensively and defensively, open court, whatever,” Jordan added. “But we’ve been able to adjust to this half-court game and be successful at it, so I can’t really complain about it right now.”
In the sixth game, however, there was plenty to complain about. One would have thought that, up three games to two, and playing on the Knicks’ home court, the Bulls would have winged it, putting the ball up from outside and either ending the series with a hot hand or coming back to Chicago. Yet they played another grueling New York-style game, only this time they played it passively. Jordan was awful–worn out and apathetic. At one point, when the Knicks were hit with a technical foul, Jordan passed up the chance to shoot it and waved Armstrong to the line. Pippen, still fighting the ankle sprain he suffered in the first game, was the only one playing with any intensity. Again and again, the Bulls found themselves battling the Knicks’ man-on-man pressure just to get the ball across the center line, where it then went to one of the Bulls’ big men–usually Grant or Cartwright–who found himself standing there, ball in hand, back to the basket 25 feet away, with a New York player clawing at him, no friendly face nearby, and the 24-second clock ticking down.
Still, the Bulls fought through it, and when Pippen was tackled on the way to the hoop at the end of the third quarter, his free throws actually put the Bulls up 70-68. That was it, however. Patrick Ewing, who had suffered a sprained ankle of his own only minutes earlier, came limping off the bench to lead a New York defensive stand, and he hit a number of staggering baskets, finishing with 27 points as the Knicks scored the first 13 points of the final quarter–the Bulls did not put the ball through the hoop one time in the first half of the fourth quarter–and went on to win 100-86. The Bulls looked beaten, as if they had no plan to attack the Knicks’ defense and no energy left to stop their offense.
The teams had two days off before the deciding game on Sunday, and–as it turns out–that was all the Bulls needed to rest up, study the Knicks, and discover that O’Donnell would be officiating the final game. Jackson and his coaches Tex Winter and Jim Cleamons finally found the wrinkle they needed. They knew they had to space their players wide apart and set screens away from the basket to free their shooters, but those tactics in themselves weren’t enough. The Knicks were too quick to switch defensive assignments, especially Ewing, who hounded the Bulls’ shooters away from the basket, then beat them back into the lane, where he would make his (usually successful) last stand. Ewing’s ankle sprain limited his mobility in the seventh game (he scored 22 points, but did most of his damage early, with 14 in the first half), but more important was that the Bulls sharpened the timing on their screens. With the speedy and muscular Grant running out to set the picks high, just as the ball handler (usually Jordan) was preparing to cut to the basket, the Knicks had no time to get into proper position to make the switch. Suddenly, the Bulls were finding creases in the previously impenetrable New York defense. And Jordan, playing Herculean basketball, was the first to show what could be done with those creases.
“It was on my mind just to get out of the blocks quick,” he said afterward. “I know everybody was a little nervous. I was a little nervous coming into the game today, because it’s a one-game series. Anything can happen. Someone can get hurt. But we have to be aggressive. We can’t sit there and think about what might happen. We have to be aggressive and make it happen. So I took it upon myself to come out aggressively and get us out of the blocks quick offensively.”
He scored the Bulls’ first six points and ten of their first 15, 18 in the quarter as they took a 30-25 lead. He hit shots from outside; he made fakes that allowed him to slip past both his defender and Ewing for lay-ups; he faked shots and passed underneath to Grant for dunks. And for the first time in the series, both he and Pippen were crisp in their shooting at the same time; their shots ricocheted off the back rim and through the hoop. Still, even though the Knicks fell behind 56-46 at one point, they scored the last five points of the half to close at 56-51.
In the third quarter the Knicks increased their defensive pressure, and for a while the game returned to the scrambling ways of the rest of the series. Then, however, the Bulls pushed their defense just a little bit more. It was “defense I had not seen from them this series, quite frankly,” Riley said. “Maybe it took them getting their backs to the wall to come up with it.”
“We got hands on the ball, we collapsed on the ball, we really protected the inside,” Jordan said. “We really didn’t let Patrick get going. Their perimeter shooting–we had a hand in their face. It was the Bulls defense of old. Everybody was helping out everybody. It was energetic, and everybody was everywhere.
“We kind of smelled the kill a little bit. Our defense opened up things. The next thing you know, our offense seemed to work.”
The key sequence came with just under five minutes left in the third quarter. Jackson had just substituted Stacey King for Cartwright, saying later he wanted to draw on his speed and quickness. Jordan sliced down the lane for a lay-up, making the score 67-59, then raced back to leap and pick off Charles Oakley’s long inbounds pass at center court. By the time he came down with the ball, two Knicks had surrounded him, and he gave the ball up to John Starks, who passed ahead to McDaniel. Jordan, however, raced back at top speed and stripped McDaniel of the ball, swiping it out-of-bounds. The Bulls got the defensive stop and came back downcourt. Jordan tried to post up, and the Knicks’ Mark Jackson, who was guarding ball handler Armstrong, cheated back to sort of double-team him. So Armstrong simply hit a three-point field goal, giving the Bulls a double-digit 70-59 lead with four minutes to play in the quarter.
With King completing a three-point play on a fast-break basket and foul, and with Armstrong bleeding the 24-second clock at the end of the quarter and draining a basket, the Bulls led 79-64 after three frames.
It took the Knicks six games to build a two-point edge in total points against the Bulls; they weren’t about to outscore them by 15 in one quarter. And so they went, in the end, rather tamely. The Bulls blew them out, 110-81.
It was as if the Bulls had finally cleared their minds after being in a funk, as if they had been bound to a rock with a bird picking at them, but had finally been released to simply shoo the bird away. Jordan attempted to explain it: “It was mentally draining every day to wake up and play against this physical, brutal team and know what you were going to be faced with. I do think this was a series that slapped us in the face and said it’s not going to be as easy as you think it is.
“I think it’s hardened us for the next series and the series following that.”