“There are two elements of the game,” said Pat Riley, head coach of the New York Knicks, after the third game of the Eastern Conference finals against the Bulls. “There’s the game of basketball and the primal game, and you’ve got to be able to deal with both of them. So the team that plays both well will probably be successful.”
Like any great coach, Riley is a tactician, a theoretician, and something of a poet, and his reference to “the primal game”–ambiguous as the phrase is–went far to clarify the series between the Knicks and the Bulls, both as a contest between two teams and as a sporting event. Riley’s use of “primal” was not as a synonym for “physical,” although that connotation was no doubt conscious and intended. Rather, he seemed to mean primal as something basic to the human animal, as that instinctive, sometimes brutal element that separates sport from science or art. The primal game is the athlete rising to the occasion, independent of tactics or strategy. It’s what gives the fan a visceral involvement in the outcome of the contest, what puts the sweetness in the sweet science of boxing. Indeed, each game of the series between the Bulls and the Knicks was reminiscent of a championship bout in the ebb and flow of tactics (the game of basketball) and initiative (the primal game).
An outsider would admit there was something tribal about the clash of these two great teams and two great cities: two teams that have little fondness for one another but great mutual respect, two cities that have little respect for one another but a grudging fondness, two great media centers sniping at one another and one another’s teams, complete with episodes of off-court controversy and on-the-page plagiarism (which true-eyed Reader readers will remember from the Hot Type of last ish).
Having played each other in a seven-game series last year and in four regular-season games this season, the Knicks and Bulls entered the series well aware of the tactics they’d face and employ. The Bulls, early on, tried to convince everyone–especially league officials–that the series would be determined by the referees, that if they kept the game pure and stuck to the sport of basketball the Bulls couldn’t help but win. But what Riley called the primal game kept intruding–had to intrude–and the defining moments of the first half of the series were primal moments.
There were the Bulls siccing their snarling, snapping wolves, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, on the Knicks in the first game, and seizing a halftime lead. Then there was Pippen catching Doc Rivers from behind on a breakaway dunk (following his own ill-advised pass) and being called for a foul as Rivers crashed (somewhat histrionically) to the floor. The momentum shifted now to the Knicks, and they held it with John Starks’s instinctive–“unconscious” was teammate Charles Smith’s word for it–series of three-point shots. In the second game, there was Pippen giving the ball to Jordan on a fast break, allowing him the privilege of the dunk, but then there was Pippen giving the ball to Rivers again for a fast break the other way. Then there was Pippen hurling the ball at referee Bill Oakes after being called for palming the ball, and being ejected from the game. There were the Bulls coming back, but then there was Starks again, with a thunderous dunk in the final minute, just as the Bulls had closed a double-digit lead to three points. That moment was both pure basketball and pure animus, as B.J. Armstrong–who had been overplaying Starks to the middle of the floor for most of the latter part of the game, to fend off the Knicks’ favorite pick-and-roll play–left the baseline open to Starks, who seized it so swiftly and dramatically that he was jamming the ball through the hoop before Jordan or Horace Grant could arrive to help.
Then, in the third game, there was Starks being called on a doubtful charge as Jordan stepped in front of him on a fast break, then Starks slashing vindictively at Jordan on the other end of the floor, being called for a technical foul, and then being ejected as he and Jordan made motions at going at one another. And in the fourth game–“a dogfight,” Bulls’ head coach Phil Jackson called it–there was Jordan, standing forehead to forehead with Starks, hitting three-point shots time and again off the standstill.
Those were the most primal moments of all–in my opinion, and I think in Riley’s, too–as the two teams headed back to New York knotted up for game five. Two men, out away from the basket, one trying to stop the other as the other players on the court stood motionless. And Jordan, with a shimmy deke to pry some room to raise his arms, firing in another long jump shot to give him 50 points, to give the Bulls a double-digit lead, 90-79, and the Chicago Stadium crowd rising as one in a standing ovation as the Knicks called a time-out and Jordan trotted off the court.
Still, it would be simplifying things to say this was a best-of-seven battle between two teams trying to seize the primal advantage without descending to the barbaric. Strategy played an important role in both the Knicks taking a 2-0 lead and the Bulls evening the series, and the games the referees called played a role in that strategy. In the first and second games the Knicks came out playing ferocious defense after halftime, and in both games the Bulls wilted. The Bulls hadn’t seen anything like it since the playoff series with the Knicks a year ago, and since the Pistons before that: it was confrontational, chest-to-chest defense, and the Bulls weren’t prepared for it. The three days between games two and three gave the Bulls time to both cauterize their New York wounds and get themselves into hot water all over again, with the brouhaha over Jordan’s trip to Atlantic City and the team’s media boycott in response. This miffed the members of the media covering the series but it also unified the Bulls, and they came out for the third game looking as if they actually had a game plan and were capable of executing it.
“We’ve been talking ever since we started to play them about how we need to move the basketball,” said John Paxson after the game. “This team is too good defensively when you allow them to load up on Michael.
“We’ve talked about moving the basketball, looking for other guys. New York’s defense goes to the lane. First and foremost they protect their basket. There are going to be players on the perimeter open. Michael’s very aware of that, understands what he has to do–had 11 assists this afternoon. He gives up the ball when he has confidence in the guys. All you have to do to give him confidence is knock down the shots.”
So Jordan made but 3 of 18 shots and the Bulls won by 20 points. They won with Jordan repeatedly driving into the lane and passing out to Paxson, who had 14, Armstrong, who had 11, and Pippen, who finished with a game-high 29 points on 10-of-12 shooting and with a mere three turnovers (he had seven in the first game, when he otherwise played well with 24 points).
If any player is the antithesis of primal, it’s Pippen. From a cerebral standpoint he is one of the most astute players in the National Basketball Association, but as an enforcer he is contrived and self-conscious–witness his hard foul of Rivers in the first game and the way it tilted the outcome.
Here in the third game, however, he was at his best. At one point in the second quarter he received the ball on the perimeter with the 24-second clock running out. Thinking that if he were going to throw up a bomb it might as well be worth the full value of the shot, he skipped back to the three-point line and smoothly caromed one through the hoop off the front rim. That gave the Bulls an 18-point lead; Paxson followed with another three moments later to give the Bulls a 21-point lead. The Knicks would unravel in the second half.
Defensively, the Bulls had thrown everything they had at the Knicks, opening with a full-court press. As Jackson put it, “We gambled and our gamble paid off.” Had the Knicks been able to handle the press they might have salvaged something for game four. As it was, they bared a few weaknesses: they can be taken out of their game, and once that has occurred they lack the offensive resources to climb back from a double-digit deficit.
The Knicks came full of primal energy for game four last Monday. Patrick Ewing, after the third game, had talked repeatedly of force and intensity; when asked what the Knicks needed for the next game he had said simply, “More force. More intensity.” That strategy, as it was, kept them close, but it was moderated by several touchy foul calls early, and by a technical foul on Ewing himself for arguing those calls.
Meanwhile, the Bulls fell into a comforting and familiar routine. When the Knicks turned up the defensive pressure, so did they, just as they had against the Pistons. They played marvelous team defense, with Pippen hounding the ball up court and the other Bulls sealing off the passing lanes under the hoop, double-teaming Ewing whenever he got the ball. With the two squads negating one another on defense, it was left to Jordan to break the deadlock. He did.
Having burned the Knicks with his passing the previous game, he torched them with his shot in game four. “He probably sensed himself that he needed to do the other thing,” said Riley. “He was passing the ball tonight–right to the basket.
“He was great. He was in a zone.”
“When he gets hot like that, it doesn’t matter what happens,” admitted the usually analytical Jackson. “It’s a show of his own. He’s in a different space than anybody else.”
The barrage began with Starks missing a steal down the sideline. Jordan took the pass, spun, and hit the open three-point shot, tying the game at 11. He hit another three in the final minute, giving the Bulls a four-point lead they’d hold at the quarter, 33-29. After a long rest (while Riley had to keep Starks on the court as his sole shooting threat), Jordan came back and hit a long jumper to give the Bulls a nine-point lead. Riley immediately called a time-out; game three had told him he couldn’t let the Bulls get a double-digit lead. The Bulls still led by nine, 61-52, at the half, as Jordan again hit a three in the last minute.
There’s something worth noting here about Jordan “in the zone.” Some players get “in a zone” and for five minutes, maybe a quarter, they’re unstoppable. Jordan had 27 points at the half on 8-of-15 shooting. He would finish with 54 points on 18-of-30 shooting. His two halves were almost identical. This was not a mere case of Jordan being “in a zone”; this was basketball’s greatest player at the height of his game for a full 48 minutes.
Still, his third quarter was the creme de la creme. Starks was called for a charge and went momentarily ballistic. His teammates calmed him and he tightened the screws on Jordan.
Jordan hit a three-pointer right over him, giving the Bulls that precious double-digit lead at 77-66.
The Knicks steadied themselves. Then Jordan hit a three over Starks to make the lead 80-70. He faked a drive, pulled up, and popped a 17-footer over Starks to make it 84-72. He came down the court shaking his head. Starks responded by coming down and hitting a three of his own against Jordan. It was 85-77 through three quarters.
The Knicks rallied in the fourth quarter, helped by Jordan’s foul trouble (he picked up three quick ones, only one of them undeserved, a bad charging call). The Knicks closed it to four, 94-90, with two and a half minutes to go. Then Pippen made a tremendous three-point play, hitting a falling-down shot as he was fouled and adding the free throw, and the Bulls held on, as Jordan followed with a 15-foot dagger. The Knicks, down nine with 96 seconds to play, called a time-out. Jordan came off the court with his fists raised, a timeless image of the victor in mortal combat, the epitome of the athlete triumphant.