Charles Barkley’s uniform hangs, all over, low and loose. The shorts are pulled up in back, over his considerable ass, but they can be said to be high on the waist only in comparison to the front, where they dip beneath the line of his somnolent and impervious gut at about the level of the string on a bartender’s apron. The legs of the shorts are wide, allowing ample room for the thighs to move at that rolling, half-track gait they appear to be best suited for. The jersey hangs loose too, heavy with sweat, so that early in the game, the white letters that spell “SIXERS” across his chest have already darkened to a bluish tint. Even the shoulder straps, which he uses to mop his face and brow, are soaked. The jersey trim creates a faint V-neck, which hangs above the wrinkled fabric below like the yoke on a beast of burden. Barkley’s face is round, but not loose; his shaven head is smooth and taut (except for the rolls on the nape of the neck), and his eyes are large and expressive, augmented by versatile, volatile eyebrows above and a mustache below. There isn’t a thing that happens on the court that doesn’t affect him–noticeably–whether it’s a basket by a teammate that prompts him to hammer the air, or an iffy foul call that registers as arched eyebrows and pursed lips. When he pulls up to shoot, just beyond the three-point line, and his features go blank and both feet set and he raises the ball as if to sight on its center for the basket, you can count it. Because it’s going in if he has to will it in, which he does.
The NBA Eastern Conference semifinal between the Bulls and the 76ers turned out to be a battle between Barkley and the Bulls’ much-maligned bench. Over the first four games, it was a mismatch.
The Sixers are one of the few teams in the league (including, probably, the Detroit Pistons) that can put five starters of equal strength on the floor with the Bulls. Mike Gminski at center, a mobile offensive player who prefers the outside, causes problems for Cartwright; Rick Mahorn, the Bad Boy transplanted from Detroit, matches up with Horace Grant at strong forward; and in the most volatile pairing, a clash of opposite styles, Barkley gets Scottie Pippen at “small” forward. Even in the backcourt, which is usually considered the Bulls’ strength, the Sixers match up well. Johnny Dawkins–yes, the same player the Bulls passed up to draft Brad Sellers years ago–gives John Paxson fits at point guard, and Hersey Hawkins is the sort of scorer who can limit Michael Jordan’s offense by forcing him to play defense.
“The bench,” however, as Stacey King said after game two, “is the key,” and even a cursory look at the rosters before the series began showed that the Bulls had, potentially, a critical advantage on the bench.
For the most part, the bench was a disappointment for the Bulls this season. Stacey King was the first player off the bench and B.J. Armstrong was either the second or third, and they played erratically, as rookies will. At midseason, when center Bill Cartwright went down for a few weeks, King and redshirt rookie Will Perdue filled the gap, and the Bulls went on an extended winning streak. But when Cartwright returned, both King and Perdue wilted as reserves. Armstrong was the Bulls’ most improved player over the second half of the season, but–small and prone to errors–he was still questionable going into the playoffs.
But the Sixers’ bench was even shakier. The loss of guard Derek Smith to injury left them with only one effective player in reserve: Ron Anderson. “They’re really hurting right now off the bench,” King said after game two, “with Derek Smith not being able to come in and give Hersey Hawkins a legitimate rest. Their bench is not really deep, and we’re going to try to exploit it. Our bench is young. I’m not saying we’ve got the best bench. But whenever we come in and spark the team like we did tonight it’s going to be a blessing.”
Or, as Coach Phil Jackson put it simply, “There’s not too much relief for Dawkins, that’s for sure.”
The second game, played here at the Chicago Stadium a week ago Wednesday, showed how the series would go. The first game, a 96-85 victory for the Bulls at the Stadium, was played in a polite manner dictated by NBA commissioner David Stern, who had issued a warning worthy of his name after violence broke out in several of the first-round playoff series. With that out of the way, the Sixers came to game two ready to play in their style–a muscular but not necessarily rough style, similar to Detroit’s. The Bulls’ defense was based on double-teaming Barkley whenever he had the ball, to “make him play heavy minutes,” in Jackson’s words, “make him use more energy coming up and down the floor.” In the early going, Barkley was up to it. He was astute at reading the double-team–seeing where the extra player would be coming from and acting quickly to exploit the opening. Receiving the ball on the baseline, he saw Stacey King coming at him from across the lane. Trailing King like a toy on a string was Mahorn. Barkley fired a pass to Mahorn, who was fouled making the shot and put the Sixers up 39-30 with the free throw.
For the Bulls it was one of those nights when nothing goes in without bouncing two or three times on the rim; every basket was a struggle. Pippen and Jordan were playing their usual inspired basketball, but without the magic. Pippen left a wonderful between-the-legs trailer pass for Jordan, then stood still to set a screen, but Jordan threw up a brick. And Barkley was hot. With just under five minutes left in the first half, he got the ball open at three-point range, focused down on the basket, and nailed it, putting the Sixers up 51-38. The Bulls had to work to get the lead down to 11 at the half.
The Bulls’ second-half strategy was based on two elements: drive to the basket–don’t settle for jump shots, and, on defense, make the double-team less predictable. As Jackson said after the game, Barkley “had a hard time reading the double-teams. Who was going to come, was it going to be Cartwright, was it going to be Pippen? Sometimes Bill came and went high, sometimes Scottie was going and is always after the ball. But when Bill goes it’s hard for him to read over the top.”
The critical play was the one in which Barkley picked up his third foul, an offensive one, with less than five minutes left in the third quarter and the Sixers up seven. (He walked back down to the defensive end making a jerk-off motion near his crotch. Nasty as this sounds, Barkley’s boyish manners are one of the things that make him such a pleasure to watch. One gets the impression that he doesn’t play any differently in front of 20,000 people than he does at a playground.) To keep him out of foul trouble, the Sixers took Barkley off Pippen on defense, and they soon discovered that neither Gminski nor Mahorn could cover him. When they brought Anderson in off the bench, they couldn’t play him at guard to give Hawkins or Dawkins a blow; they had to play him at forward to guard Pippen. Barkley then picked up another offensive foul, his fourth, and he danced down the court like Rumpelstiltskin, kicking the hardwood. The Sixers had to sit him down, and the Bulls went to work. With the Sixers up 77-71, the Bulls put Perdue alongside King in the critical sequence of the game. Perdue made a wonderful struggling offensive rebound and basket to make it 77-73. Jordan hit a lay-up, and then–in the period’s final second–Mahorn hammered Jordan on a drive and picked up a technical foul when King faced up to him. Jordan hit all three free throws, and the Bulls were up 78-77 at the end of three quarters.
They opened the fourth quarter with King, Perdue, Armstrong, and Craig Hodges joining Pippen on the floor, and the reserves held the lead. King embarrassed Gminski, driving on him twice to score, and Armstrong also scored on an aggressive drive into the tall timber. The Sixers pushed against the Bulls’ straw men with their first string, Barkley back, so that when the Bulls brought their starting group back, one by one, the Sixers were spent. The Bulls won 101-96, King tossing a towel high in the air and thumping Jeff Sanders on the back as they left the floor.
Game four, last Sunday, was really the same, only in Philadelphia and without Pippen (who was home in Arkansas for his father’s funeral). The Bulls again played a gambit, spotting the Sixers a lead, substituting strategically off the bench, and then roaring back in the fourth quarter, when the Sixers were gassed. The most deceptively important game of the series may well have been the third, when the Sixers opened an immense 57-30 lead in the first half, then watched Jordan and four reserves rally the Bulls to within three points in the final frame. The Sixers spent so much holding onto that one that they had nothing left in the fourth quarter Sunday. The Bulls rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit to outscore them 34-15 in the final 12 minutes. Barkley couldn’t will the ball into the hoop–he missed six straight free throws–and the Sixers’ weariness as a team showed in rebounding: at one point in the quarter the Bulls had outrebounded them 10-1. The heroic reserve for this game was Ed Nealy, the large, wide, ungainly forward who was the straw man who broke Barkley’s back, while King, elevated to a starting role, scored 21. The Bulls won going away, 111-101, taking a 3-1 lead in the series. Now, unless the improbable happens between the time I write this and the time you read it, it’s on to Detroit.
The Sixers were perfect sparring partners; the Bulls couldn’t have asked for a better series to prepare for the Pistons. As they entered the playoffs their bench was a problem they had to solve if they were going to challenge the Pistons in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference final. As Jordan was quoted after game four in Philadelphia: “The important thing that happened today is not just that we won when Scottie wasn’t here, but the people who had to fill in for him gained confidence from the situation.”