Head coach Phil Jackson called Toni Kukoc and Pete Myers the “X factors” of the Bulls’ playoff run. He meant not X as in X-Men–although with his new two-tone, black-and-white goggles Horace Grant looks, more than ever, like a Marvel Comics hero. Not X as in exceptional, because Kukoc and Myers have been exasperating as often as they’ve excelled. But X as in “X the unknown,” that pet phrase of algebra teachers, for the unknown quantity of their performance under pressure.
As a National Basketball Association rookie, Kukoc is in his first playoff run; while Myers is in his sixth season, he had played only five playoff games in his career up until this year–none in the 90s. The Bulls expect to get strong, consistent performances from Grant, Scottie Pippen, and B.J. Armstrong, but the play of Myers as starting off guard and Kukoc off the bench has been the variable, the unknown value.
They were two of the keys to the Bulls’ deceptively difficult three-game sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first playoff series, but they also both played roles in the Bulls’ loss to the New York Knicks as the second round of the playoffs began last Sunday.
Myers helped the Bulls get off to a good start against the Knicks, who looked a little worse for wear after being taken to a fourth game against the New Jersey Nets. The Knicks finished that business Friday night and had to come right back against the Bulls Sunday in Madison Square Garden, after the Bulls had been resting since the previous Tuesday. Off the bench, Kukoc was even more impressive than Myers in the first half. He was aggressive with the basketball, driving repeatedly to the hoop and looking to pass off and to create easy shots for his teammates, and as a shooter he was both patient and accurate. Early in the fourth quarter he made his third shot in three attempts, all from three-point range. That gave the Bulls a 76-66 lead–unfortunately, their last double-digit lead.
Myers was a nonfactor in the second half, and Kukoc got flustered later in the fourth quarter, just at a point when the Bulls couldn’t afford to get flustered. Early on, the Bulls’ rest advantage had helped carry them to the lead–52-42 at halftime–and in the third quarter they maintained their advantage, even as the Knicks increased the defensive pressure, because the Bulls’ offense just kept churning. The Knicks played that tough man-to-man defense, but the Bulls kept making passes and cutting around screens until finally, with four seconds or so on the shot clock, someone would come free. But a couple of Kukoc turnovers ignited a New York charge. The Knicks cut the lead to 76-72, and Kukoc came out for Myers. The offense continued to sputter, and Jackson sent in John Paxson, the team’s pacemaker, to regulate the heartbeat. But Paxson couldn’t stay with his man, John Starks, on defense, so Jackson sent Kukoc back in with the score tied at 79 halfway through the final quarter. The Bulls took a final, short-lived lead, but the Knicks came back–the Bulls coming apart in the final minutes–to win 90-86.
Impressions being, as usual, a bit mercurial during the playoffs, all this called into question the generally stellar play by Kukoc and Myers in the opening series against the Cavs. Myers embodied the team’s struggles in that he seemed to be performing poorly while doing what was needed–as the Bulls, of course, kept winning.
Myers was assigned to guard Gerald Wilkins. Now, the whole Cleveland team has had a chip on its shoulder about the Bulls ever since Michael Jordan’s series-winning shot in 1989. Wilkins has only been with Cleveland a couple of years, but he has as big a grudge against the Bulls as any of the Cavs. He was resigned to leaving the Knicks two seasons ago and wanted to come to the Bulls; but the Bulls said they weren’t interested and Wilkins wound up in Cleveland.
Wilkins, therefore, always seems to get inspired for the Bulls, and this series was no exception. He lit Myers up for 22 points in the first game and 28 in the second–this after averaging 14.3 a game for the season–but Myers seemed unfazed, mainly because the Bulls won both games.
Myers probably doesn’t have the talent to be a starting shooting guard in the NBA. For one thing, he doesn’t shoot all that well, averaging just eight points a game this year while making 45 percent of his shots. But he plays good, determined defense, and he’s one of those guys with a great attitude (the sports-world equivalent of a woman praised for her personality). I particularly like how he’s always springing around on the court, even during breaks in the play; the heels of his shoes never seem to touch the floor.
After the second game, he was receptive with reporters and open about the Bulls’ defensive strategy, in which he was called on to pay as much attention to the Cavs’ dangerous point guard, Mark Price, as to Wilkins. “If Mark Price breaks the defense down, I’ve got to come over and help,” he said. “You all should realize, we prefer Gerald taking that three rather than Mark Price.
“We’re going to leave Gerald. If he makes the shot, he makes the shot. But we don’t think Gerald can beat us by himself. If Mark Price has 25 or 30 points, he’ll also have 10, 15 assists. That pretty much gets everybody going.” For the record, Price didn’t get to 20 points until the third game in the series, and he never reached double figures in assists.
But Kukoc did–in the first half of the second game alone. This came after a first game in which he found himself cast in the unlikely role of the Bulls’ off-the-bench rebounding muscle. The Cavs entered the series with center Brad Daugherty injured and unlikely to play and power forward Larry Nance definitely out. Then center John “Hot Rod” Williams broke his thumb immediately before the playoffs. That left the Cavs starting no one taller than six feet nine inches. The Bulls took a while to figure out this slight but scrappy lineup, but they held a 42-34 rebounding advantage in the first game and won 104-96. Kukoc accounted for the Bulls’ eight-board advantage.
In the second game, Pippen went out early with foul trouble. The Bulls put the ball in Kukoc’s hands as point forward, and he put on a clinic. At one point, on consecutive trips down the court he dished a no-look pass to Grant for a dunk, then drove and passed back out to Steve Kerr for a three. Then he swung the ball back out to Jo Jo English for another three to give the Bulls a 31-23 lead at the end of the first quarter. He opened the second quarter by hitting English on a backdoor play for a lay-up. That gave the Bulls their first double-digit lead at 33-23. Kukoc had a team playoff record ten assists in the first half.
He cooled down in the second half, but hit Armstrong with a crosscourt pass for a three at a critical juncture, fending off a Cleveland rally and reasserting a ten-point lead, 89-79. The Bulls went on to win 105-96.
In the third game, Kukoc led the Bulls on a 16-point run late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, as they rallied from a nine-point deficit to take the lead. The Cavs regained their balance to tie the score and force overtime, but the Bulls won 95-92, with Kukoc scoring 18 points.
“Toni is so interchangeable out there, or so unpredictable, you don’t know what to expect of him,” Jackson said after the second game. “That’s the thing that makes him an X factor, that quantity. Whatever he gives you sometimes can be the effect of the game.”
Jackson fully intended to suggest that Kukoc’s effect on a game can be either pro or con from the Bulls’ standpoint, but Kukoc’s effect was clearly favorable in each game of the Cleveland series. Asked about his confidence level after the second game–especially in light of his up-and-down play during the season–Kukoc said, “It’s much bigger than before. But I’m still looking for the perfect game, with lots of points, a lot of assists, a lot of rebounds”–putting it all together.
For a time it looked as if that perfect game might come– surprise, surprise–in the first game of the series against the Knicks. That was unlikely in that the Knicks play a dramatically different sort of basketball from the Cavs–an entirely different sport, in fact. They grab and push and pull and trip, and with the fans behind them and the referees cowed into submission they can take an opponent out of his game (witness Xavier McDaniel’s job on Pippen two years ago, speaking of X men). Kukoc, a slightly built 6-11 finesse player, prefers a more free-flowing game, as in the series with the Cavs, but had also had it impressed upon him that he needed to respond to the Knicks’ style.
He was confident and assertive in the early going, without forcing it. And his play allowed the Bulls to shift Pippen to guard in a rare situation where it seemed to favor his play. Pippen prefers the forward position and doesn’t like to be moved around, but playing guard against the Knicks allows him to match up with the rough-and-tumble John Starks, and the Bulls took the early lead mainly on the benefits of this mismatch.
Pippen has always been a great and promising player, but he’s developed a new and unexpected aspect of his game this year–a smoothness in his presentation, a confidence, elan. This can be seen most clearly in his new, elegant turnaround jumper, but he can also amaze with silky smooth moves in the open court. Against the Cavs, he came down once on a fast break, dribbled into traffic, went up, and then, palming the ball in his left hand, softly swung it up and into the hoop. With both Pippen and Kukoc peaking for the playoffs, the Bulls seemed to offer too much talent for even the Knicks to handle.
Pippen stripped Starks of the ball early in the second half and was tripped by Starks on his way downcourt. Pippen made both foul shots to put the Bulls’ lead at 65-52. Having hurt his toe, however, he came out for Kukoc, but when Kukoc hit that aforementioned three early in the fourth quarter the lead remained at ten. Yet Kukoc was the first of the Bulls to fold under the Knicks’ fourth-quarter pressure. Taken from the game and reinserted, he played with more composure, but by that time the lead was gone and Pippen and Armstrong were now taking bad shots as well. The Knicks got to all the rebounds and loose balls in the fourth quarter, and the Bulls had blown a chance to claim the home-court advantage.
The Bulls obviously had planned to throw a lineup including both Pippen and Kukoc at the Knicks, and at first it created match-up problems the Knicks couldn’t solve. But late in the game, changing on the fly, New York coach Pat Riley put the muscular Anthony Mason on Pippen, with the smaller Starks on Kukoc, and the Bulls weren’t able to exploit the Kukoc-Starks height advantage. That, it appeared, would be a focal point of the next game and the rest of the series. X, the unknown, marks the spot.