Michael Jordan was asked how the confidence level of this year’s Bulls compared with the confidence of the team that won three straight championships. “I think we’re confident,” he said, but added, “The team that won three championships had a different swagger to it.” Winning between 57 and 67 games a year gave that team a track record of success during the regular season and a position to defend in the playoff seedings. While this season’s Bulls finished 13-4 after Jordan’s return, their overall record was 47-35, only fifth best in the Eastern Conference of the National Basketball Association, meaning that barring any Cinderella upsets, they would concede the home-court advantage in every playoff series. “I believe in this team,” Jordan added. “I believe in myself. I believe in our chances–or else I wouldn’t have come back.” But “it isn’t the same swagger” the Bulls had from 1990 through 1993.
Yet there is something else different about this season’s Bulls. The championship Bulls, from Jordan and coach Phil Jackson on down, seemed to delight in the mental game of basketball, especially as played out in the mass-media hysteria surrounding the playoffs. It was something cruel and brutal they picked up from the Detroit Pistons and then refined to an applied science. It was an attitude in which the Bulls attempted to turn up the pressure on an opponent–and, if necessary, on themselves–because they believed they were the stronger team mentally and that the other team would crack first. It was not only one of the defining elements of their annual showdowns with the New York Knicks; it was reflected, for instance, in their leaking their scouting report on the Portland Trail Blazers (give them a chance to choke and they will, which they did) before the 1992 NBA finals. It was a state of mind best expressed by chess champion Bobby Fischer when he was at the top of his game. “I like to see ’em squirm,” Fischer said of his opponents. The Bulls, when they were winning championships, were not content with beating a team physically on the court; they had to dominate an opponent mentally.
That quality is not in the makeup of the current Bulls. For one thing, they’ve been preoccupied with the sheer mechanics of working Jordan back into the lineup. But the other thing is that Jordan, as ever, appears to be dictating the team’s temperament, simply by his force as a leader. And while Jordan seems as mentally tough as ever, he doesn’t seem as ruthless as before.
Look at his behavior on and off the court. Where Jordan once baited the referees for every missed call to gain the slightest advantage, you can count on one hand the number of times he has merely looked askance at them since his return. Off the court he has spent long hours with reporters, answering questions and repeated questions. It would be a slight–and a cliche–to say this was a kinder, gentler Jordan. Kindness and gentleness have nothing to do with it. Yet this does, clearly, seem to be a humbler, more mellow Jordan, more composed, more self-contained, more appreciative of how difficult it is to be a professional athlete, both for himself and for others.
“I think what he experienced in minor-league baseball kind of gave him a better understanding of what other people have to do,” said Will Perdue, “and how they have to [develop] the work ethic to reach a certain level. I think he got a better understanding of that when he saw how many guys were just trying to make it in the minor leagues, with the hope of maybe one day playing in the majors.”
Jordan used to humiliate that sort of fringe player. After all, he routinely humiliated them even on his own team. Now he seems satisfied to defeat them on the court, and even then he treats them with respect. And where his teammates are concerned, he has been solicitous of star holdovers Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong, while also becoming Toni Kukoc’s biggest defender, even when Jackson has publicly chided Kukoc. “He’s a good student of the game,” Jordan said. “I think he’s starting to get a feel for my game as much as I’ve gotten a feel for his game. He’s got great passing ability. [And] I’ve been able to find him with no-look passes.”
So far this season, Jackson has directed most of his media mind games at his own team, most recently toying with the active roster as he decided whom to use in the playoffs. We may yet see some of Jackson’s strategic psychology, should the Bulls advance to meet the Orlando Magic in the second round. The Magic, which has never won a playoff game going into this year’s postseason, seems a team prone to self-doubts. But first the Bulls have to get past the Charlotte Hornets, who after all have home-court advantage in the best-of-five opening-round series. And the Hornets have the snake venom to act as the antidote to any media poisoning, in the form of assistant coach John Bach.
Bach, remember, was the defensive-minded assistant on the Bulls bench during their championship run. With his highlight tapes edited to include inspirational movie footage, and his postgame death-card drawings on the chalkboard after a victory, he played the mental game as well as anyone. Last Saturday, when the Hornets came to town for a meaningless contest at the end of the regular season, Bach was standing just inside the door to the Hornets’ locker room, both before and after the game. He was there to take a lot of the media attention on himself–the more questions a coach is asked, the fewer questions the players have to face–a role he had filled many times over the years with the Bulls.
Asked whether he expected any of the Bulls’ old media manipulation, he said, “I don’t think we’re going to see that. I think it’s going to be settled with basketball and nothing else.
“I’d be more concerned with their open-court play,” he added. “Their open-court advance up the floor, at times, it’s devastating. You’re looking at Michael and then Pippen is attacking you. You’re looking at both of them and B.J. Armstrong is spotting up. They have the ball in the hands of Kukoc, who can do damage with the attack or the pass. So they’re a very, very good open-court team.”
The Hornets went out of their way to avoid any mental confrontation last Saturday. Starters Alonzo Mourning and Muggsy Bogues, both suffering minor aches and pains, did not even dress and sat on the bench in street clothes. That left Larry Johnson to score 22 points in the first half just to keep the Hornets within ten at 62-52. To open the second half, the Hornets tightened the defense and went to a slower pace, closing to within a point of the lead at 68-67. Then Armstrong loosened things up with a couple of jump shots–one for three points–and a nice drive. The Hornets got a little desperate to see the Bulls pulling away again, and they quickened the pace–and the Bulls stomped them.
At one point the Bulls came down on the fast break and the Hornets hurried back to defend. Jordan posted up low, with his back to the basket, and received a pass. In the blink of an eye, without even looking, he hurled the ball over his left shoulder to Kukoc steaming down the lane. Kukoc dunked the ball and the crowd went wild. The Hornets were as impressed as the crowd was by that, and on the very next possession Pippen threw up an uncontested alley-oop pass for Jordan and another jam, making it 86-74. The Bulls led 90-76 at the end of three quarters, and Charlotte coach Allan Bristow threw in the towel, putting in scrubs for the rest of the way.
The Bulls are playing their most beautiful basketball in years. It frequently brings to mind their awesome displays of pure talent early in the 1990-91 season. But the offensive pyrotechnics of those days flowed directly from their defense. And their ability to tighten down that defense in the playoffs is what made them champions.
Now the Bulls’ more amazing plays flow not from stern defense but from pure offensive wizardry. In addition to their back-to-back dunks in the third quarter against Charlotte, there was a fast break early in the fourth quarter in which Pippen came down and passed briskly to Kukoc on the baseline, who converted a lovely soft touch pass to Pete Myers coming down the lane. Myers was fouled and couldn’t complete the dunk, but it was impressive all the same. Earlier, in the first half, Jordan palmed the ball out on the perimeter and faked a one-handed pass to Bill Wennington down low. Then Jordan looked away down the middle of the court, the Hornets all ran in that direction, and without looking back Jordan made the same pass he had just faked to Wennington, who spun down the baseline unmolested for a dunk. The Bulls pull off four or five plays like that every game. Against the Knicks, who had come to town the week before for a grudge match after being embarrassed by the Bulls and Jordan at Madison Square Garden, the Bulls put on a clinic–Jordan, Pippen, and Kukoc especially–and they ran the Knicks right off the floor.
The playoffs, however, are not a time for beauty. “Let’s face it,” Bach said Saturday, “the playoffs are the half-court game.” And the Bulls know that Bach knows their half-court triangle offense “better than anyone else out there besides us,” as Perdue put it. No doubt Bach had some tactics up his sleeve that he was not about to share during a meaningless regular- season game.
“I thought that they played a game as close to their chest as I expected,” Jackson said, “and we did too.” No doubt the Bulls have been watching tapes of the February game in Charlotte, where the Hornets shut them down cold in the second half and came from a double-digit deficit to win.
Yet some things have changed since that game, foremost among them Jordan’s sport of choice. His shot may still squeak from night to night, but his overall game is as creative as it has ever been, and he has his most offensively skilled set of teammates ever. The question is, now that the Bulls have switched from a team built on stern defense and mental toughness to one of aesthetic beauty and good sportsmanship, can they produce the same results in the playoffs? They’ve confounded opponents in the media in the past. Can they now mesmerize them on the court with razzle-dazzle? It says here that the Hornets, at least, won’t have the discipline to stick to a half-court game. They’ll have to rush the pace because as a young team, no matter what Bach tells them, that is their nature. And when they do, the Bulls will chew them up. What’s more, with Bristow at the helm they can still butcher a game down the stretch, a trait they showed last week against the Knicks in a loss that sealed their position as the fourth-seeded team in the conference. The Bulls may not have that sadistic former quality of toying with their victims in the media, but they still have a killer instinct; they know how to finish a game. Bulls in four.