Following the pro basketball season is sort of like watching a spring bulb flower. After things are planted in the fall there is a long, cold, dreary time in which nothing much seems to happen. It’s important only for how it alters the chemistry of the bulb. While NBA teams, of course, try to win every game during the cold winter months of the regular season, they’re reluctant to put their full array of tricks on display. It would be difficult to sustain such a pace for a full 82-game season, and the team’s secrets would be picked over by every scout. A good coach makes sure a team keeps something in reserve, then deploys that something at critical moments toward the end of the season and in the playoffs, with hopes that even scouts will be, for a moment, confounded as to how a team is doing what it now does. That’s why spring is the full flowering of pro basketball, the most intense play matched with the most involved tactics.
The Bulls’ season was clipped like a bud in the middle of the night, just when it appeared ready to burst into bloom. We didn’t see who did it, but we have a feeling the Bulls themselves were the worst culprits.
The Bulls opened the last week of the regular season in a three-way race for the best record in the Eastern Conference. To the first-place team would go home-court advantage for as long as that team advanced in the playoffs, at least until the finals. The Bulls were in third place, a half game behind the New York Knicks and a full game behind the Atlanta Hawks, but with home games against both those teams to end the season, and with only another home game against the downtrodden Boston Celtics in between. What’s more, the Hawks would play the Knicks during the week. If the Bulls won their three games and the Knicks beat the Hawks, the Bulls would claim first place, with a 57-25 record–same as they finished a year ago, with Michael Jordan.
The showdown with the Hawks, a week ago Monday, was one of the Bulls’ best games of the year. Both the fans and the players reveled beforehand in a playoff atmosphere, and the Bulls responded by both outplaying and outmaneuvering the Hawks and their coach, Lenny Wilkens.
In the teams’ previous two meetings, a home-and-home set in March, the Bulls had swamped the Hawks at the Stadium, in large part because Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc proved too mobile for the Hawks’ big front line of Kevin Willis, Danny Manning, and center Jon Koncak. In the days before their next meeting, in Atlanta, the Hawks prepared a new set of tactics to go with a new starting lineup–a smaller, quicker group with forward Duane Ferrell replacing Koncak, and Willis moving to center–and they dealt the Bulls an equally decisive defeat.
No doubt these teams would rather have played intense but simpleminded games against each other, but one got the feeling that the home-court stakes were so high they were using everything they could think of. That was certainly the case in their final regular-season meeting. The Hawks once again started Ferrell at forward, yet the Bulls did not immediately counter. (Scott Williams was at center, as Bill Cartwright remained out nursing his aching old knees toward the playoffs.) Not even three minutes into the game, however, with the Bulls up 4-3, coach Phil Jackson sent in Kukoc for Pete Myers. Myers and Pippen exchanged quizzical looks as Myers left the floor; it was an unusually early substitution. Kukoc shifted to small forward, guarding Ferrell, and Pippen shifted to off guard, on Stacey Augmon. The Bulls had the ball-handling talent on the floor to counter the Hawks’ smaller, speedier lineup, and they jumped out to a 10-5 lead. Wilkens called a time-out to bring Koncak into the game. In their chess match, Jackson had earned an advantage in the opening.
Jackson said that, yes, he had been prepared for the Hawks to start Ferrell, but otherwise he was not forthcoming about the tactics behind his moves; he was still playing his cards close to his vest. But if he was prepared, he was the only one who knew it. The meeting with the Hawks ended a hectic spurt for the Bulls–five games in seven nights–and Kukoc said afterward that the team had devoted little practice time to preparing for the Hawks’ small lineup. He was as surprised as anyone that Jackson brought him off the bench so early. “I guess he just felt something,” Kukoc said.
Whatever, with Koncak on the floor the Hawks surrendered the initiative; the Bulls knew how to attack that lineup. On offense, they put the ball in Kukoc’s hands, and he drove on the slower Manning time and again. On defense, they put Kukoc on Koncak–a remedial offensive player at best–and Kukoc regularly double-teamed the ball, especially when Willis or Manning had it near the hoop, leaving Koncak with an open outside shot he was unable to hit with any consistency.
The Bulls went on to a 13-9 lead. Wilkens tried to turn things around by bringing the pesky blond pissant Craig Ehlo in for Manning, giving the Hawks a sort of in-between lineup heavy on defensive pressure, but Jackson responded immediately by bringing Myers back in for Kukoc, and Myers went ape. He hit a jumper and then drove for a lay-up. Steve Kerr came in and hit a jumper and a three-point shot, and the Bulls blew the Hawks off the floor in the last four minutes of the first quarter, taking a 24-11 lead.
From there, tactics took a backseat to intensity, and the Bulls had all of that for a time. Myers came flying down the wing on a fast break. Kerr tossed him the ball, and Myers just kept on going at the same high speed. Then he dished to Horace Grant in the lane for a slam dunk, and as Grant jammed the ball Myers continued running full-out under the hoop and back up the other sideline, all the while his hand held aloft as if to say “I did it, I did it.” That gave the Bulls a 30-11 lead, and they soon went up by 20.
Yet the Hawks responded with a full-court press, and they closed to 44-34 at the half. And in the third quarter their swarming defense threw the Bulls into a funk. When Kukoc missed a pair of free throws and Mookie Blaylock responded with a three-pointer, the game was tied at 51.
Pippen then made only one of two free throws, but got the rebound and fed Kukoc cutting down the lane for a basket, 54-51. The Hawks missed, and Pippen came down on the break and passed crosscourt to Kerr, who hit a three, 57-51. The Hawks had used too much energy just getting back into the game, and it began to show. Kukoc, now guarded by the overmatched redhead Adam Keefe as the Hawks’ starters took a breather, drove down the lane and hit a nifty one-handed bank shot, 59-51. A few moments into the fourth quarter, Kukoc–now guarded by Ferrell again–saw a double-team coming across the lane and immediately spun down the baseline for a lay-in, 65-55.
From there, beginning with Ehlo, who wound up on the bench with a pathetic look on his face, the Hawks unraveled one by one, and the Bulls cruised to an 87-70 victory.
We thought the win over Boston four nights later was so assured that not only didn’t we bother to watch it, we didn’t even tape it. In that, we matched the Bulls’ level of commitment, as they lost 104-94 in double overtime. The Bulls had charged into the game, winning 11 of 12 and 17 of 20, to give them the shot at the Eastern Conference crown. But with the loss to the Celtics all the old doubts resurfaced at once. Could the Bulls, an outside-shooting team, rely on their shooting to carry them through pressure games? They made only 38 percent of their shots, with Pippen an abysmal 11 of 31 from the field. How would Myers and Kukoc–the players Jackson labeled “the X factor,” for the unknown rookie quotient– respond to the pressure? Myers was awful, making 2 of 10 shots, and if Kukoc was only half as bad it was because he played only half the time Myers did; they combined for 11 points in 56 minutes. Would B.J. Armstrong play defense the way he did in last year’s playoffs–the way he had against Blaylock on Monday night–or the way he did much of the season? The Celtics’ Dee Brown lit him up (but not only him, to be fair about it) for 40 points.
Atlanta had, in fact, beaten New York in their final meeting, but then the Hawks had lost to the Miami Heat (unlike the Celtics, a playoff team). By losing to Boston the Bulls had blown a shot at the Eastern Conference title, and were assured of being seeded third in the playoffs, behind both the Hawks and the Knicks.
That took the bloom off last Sunday’s regular-season finale between the Bulls and the Knicks. There was indeed a playoff intensity to the fans and to much of the play, but one got the feeling that the coaches were parrying and thrusting with their swords, while keeping their daggers hidden behind their backs. These two teams will meet in the second round (should both avoid a first-round embarrassment, that is), and they were not about to reveal anything they didn’t need to reveal.
What they put on display, however, was grim enough for the Bulls. The Knicks very methodically lured the Bulls into the expected double-teams and then hit the open shots. The Bulls, meanwhile, had trouble hitting the rim, falling behind 23-14. Pippen rallied them to within six, 25-19, at the end of the first quarter.
It was Scottie and the White Boys to open the second quarter, and they did a surprisingly good number on the Knicks. Pippen went out with the big center Luc Longley, shooting guards Kerr and John Paxson, and Kukoc at the other forward matched up against the oafish Charles Oakley. New York coach Pat Riley almost flipped when he saw that, and immediately replaced Oakley with the lanky Charles Smith, who took Kukoc to school. Yet Jackson stuck with him–he was surprisingly tender and solicitous with Kukoc, drawing him aside for talks during free throws, especially considering what tongue-lashings he’s given him at odd moments this season–and the group eventually responded. Paxson popped a three to tie the game at 33–to great applause–and Kerr followed with a jumper to give the Bulls a 35-33 lead. With the starters back in after a blow, however, the Knicks reclaimed a 44-41 lead at halftime.
To open the second half, Myers cut around a Cartwright screen (the Bulls center had been activated just to warm up for the playoffs with a sparring session against Patrick Ewing), but Myers neglected to pick up the ball as he did so, and the Knicks scooped it up and went the length of the floor for the basket. That set the tone. The Knicks set out to win the game in the first five minutes of the second half–an old trick of the Bulls–and by the time a shell-shocked Myers was removed from the game the Bulls were on their way to being down 13 points.
Kukoc entered the game for the fourth quarter, but he had the look of a badly beaten dog about him. The Knicks’ defense was intense, and Ewing was dominating the game on offense when he wasn’t sitting down with foul trouble. At one point the Knicks triple-teamed the ball in the corner. Somehow the pass was made to Kukoc. He drove the baseline only to find Ewing standing in the lane under the hoop. Kukoc was so intimidated he hopped into the air and made a meek little flip at the basket, even though Ewing had four fouls and was only standing his ground, determined not to draw a ticky-tack call. The ball dropped to the ground; the Knicks rebounded it and took it the other way. It was the defining moment of the game. The Knicks went on to win, 92-76.
Now the Bulls face a first-round confrontation with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Although the Cavs are beat up, they’ve been waiting for years to get a shot at the Bulls without Jordan. Aside from the Charlotte Hornets–who came back from injuries to just miss the playoffs and were the team nobody wanted to play–the Cavs had to be the Bulls’ least-desired opening-round opponent. Far worse is that almost certainly the Bulls now will have to play both the Knicks and the Hawks to get to the finals. And as the Hawks watch the Bulls and Knicks fight it out, they’ll be playing the winner of the first-round series between the Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers.
Once again, somebody’s going to have to beat the Bulls to be champion, but we say that this year with a great deal more trepidation than we have in years past. How much have the Bulls been hiding down in the dirt? We’ll have to see another flower bloom to find out.