Not only did the Bulls return to their traditional black shoes for the National Basketball Association playoffs, but Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Horace Grant opted for black sweatbands instead of the usual red, and Grant switched from white goggles to red. Professionals–even the defending champions–alter their routines to emphasize the difference in playoff play, to divorce themselves from the business-as-usual attitude that got them through the regular season. The Bulls spent such a long time looking ahead to the playoffs this season–concentrating on each game almost as a diversion–that they diminished what turned out to be a spectacular 67-15 campaign, easily the best record in the league and one of the best in league history. The playoffs, they knew, were what really mattered, and so it was predictable that the Bulls would both look and play a little differently when the playoffs actually began. What was unexpected was how those differences actually manifested themselves last Friday at the Chicago Stadium, when the Miami Heat came to town for the first postseason game in the life of the young franchise.
In the early going, “I just felt we were a little nervous,” admitted Jordan afterward. “That’s just common instinct, I guess. Everybody gets nervous; even the best get nervous.”
Everyone, that is, except for Jordan himself. If he gets nervous, he has an unusual way of showing it.
Late in the first quarter, the Heat’s Glen Rice shot a turnaround jumper over Pippen. Jordan came from across the lane to leap high in the air to bat it away. Jordan had already pulled down several fierce rebounds, and had made one amazing assist, driving past Bill Cartwright on a pick only to run into Miami center Rony Seikaly, then dishing a blind, overhead pass to the trailing Cartwright for an open shot. Jordan then scored on an almost effortless turnaround jumper over the Heat’s Brian Shaw, and after the rejection of the Rice shot he went wild, sandwiching a pair of driving lay-ups around a long defensive rebound he took the length of the floor for a stuff. He finished the first quarter with 12 points, half the Bulls’ total, but they trailed 27-24.
“I was very nervous about this game, and I think we were anxious,” head coach Phil Jackson said, “anxious to get the playoffs under way.” He took Jordan’s performance almost for granted. “It came to him,” he said, “plus, I think he’s keyed up for these games. This is his special time of the season.”
After Jordan carried the Bulls through the first quarter, the team got progressively better. Pippen, as usual, was the first to answer Jordan’s call, but he was closely followed by Grant. Late in the second quarter, Pippen stole the ball from Seikaly, went dashing down the court on a fast break, and made a snazzy bounce pass through traffic to Jordan, who finished with one of those dunks executed so aggressively and at such a high speed that he bounced the ball off his own head. That gave the Bulls their first four-point lead, and they never looked back. Jordan followed moments later with a driving dunk–this one out of the normal offense following some crisp perimeter passing to the weak side–and Pippen finished the half with a driving jam over Miami backup center Alec Kessler, putting the Bulls up 60-53. When they had nothing better to do, they pounded the ball down low to Grant, who feasted on the Heat’s Grant Long for ten first-half points.
The Heat had remained in the game because they were playing a tenacious man-to-man defense, and because rookie point guard Steve Smith was outstanding. He finished the first half with 11 points, six assists, and two steals. In fact, when he was forced to take a rest in the second quarter, the Heat still led by two. When he returned, he found his team down five. That was a seven-point swing, and the Heat ran another five-point deficit in the second half when Smith had to rest, as well as a three-point deficit at the end, after Smith left for good. In a 19-point loss, the Heat fell 15 points behind in the 12 minutes Smith wasn’t on the floor.
“There’s no pressure on them. They’re very relaxed. And they came out very aggressive,” Jordan said, having finished with 46 points. Yet he quickly added, “As long as we can take their initial punch and be able to throw something back at them, I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Yet that initial punch may have been the only one the Heat had to throw. Miami quit at the end of the first game, losing 113-94, and lacked aggressiveness at the start of the second game last Sunday. After Seikaly won the opening tip, Pippen answered immediately with a steal and a reverse dunk, and the rout was on. It was Pippen who led the way this time, driving aggressively and relentlessly to the hoop. For the first quarter alone he had two steals and made six of seven shots for 16 points. The Heat, meanwhile, were telegraphing short passes, causing them to force some longer passes. Miami committed seven early turnovers, which led directly to 12 Chicago points; it’s no coincidence that that was the first-quarter difference between the two teams, as the Bulls led 32-20.
With Jordan answering Pippen’s call in the second quarter, the Bulls went out to a 64-41 lead and put the game away. The Heat’s moral victory was in outscoring Pippen and Jordan by four, as Pippen finished the half with 20 and Jordan with 17.
The Heat are an interesting team, but clearly not a challenge to the Bulls as yet. Smith is already a talented point guard, with a good outside shot, good ball-handling skills, and a quick drive, but he’s really the only individual player of the caliber of the Bulls’ starters. The Heat’s ballyhooed Seikaly and Rice are both one-dimensional. Seikaly has good games and bad games, and, while Rice can shoot from the outside with Pippen, he doesn’t do any of the other things Pippen does to help a team–pass, run the offense, play defense.
“With Pippen the good shooter that he is and the excellent ball handler, that takes so much pressure off Michael,” Miami head coach Kevin Loughery said afterward. “He doesn’t have to bring the ball up the floor anymore. That used to be the key. The other team used to like to see Michael bring the ball up, put a lot of pressure on him, one-on-one pressure, and try to wear him down a little bit.”
Loughery knows of what he speaks. He coached the Bulls in Jordan’s first season, and he quickly understood the depth of Jordan’s talent and went about using it to the utmost–too much, no doubt. Jordan has often credited Loughery with helping to make him the player he has become. Now there’s a sense of longing in Loughery’s voice as he talks about Jordan and Pippen. “What I could have done if I’d had them both,” he seems to say.
He shook that off last Sunday, however, to focus on his own team and the bigger picture. “I think we’re finding out what the world champions are made of,” he said. “I think we’re finding out what it takes at this level, how high a pitch great players can get to. That’s all very important”–for next year and beyond, that is.
As for the Bulls, by the time the second game of the best-of-five series was over they had reasserted that they were very much the same team that won the championship easily a year ago. Physically they are superior to all other teams in the league, and their strategic edge in Jackson and his coaching staff may be just as great. On offense, they pinpointed Grant’s matchup with Long as their prime strong point, and when they needed a basket that’s where they went. On defense, assistant coach John Bach came up with a simple but effective scheme. The Bulls double-teamed on penetrating guards and on Seikaly by bringing a player in from the perimeter to trail the play. This left a Miami player open on the outside, but first the Heat would have to find him, and second he would have to hit the shot. The Heat have some good shooters–Rice and Smith foremost among them–but even a good shooter only makes about half of those outside shots, and the Bulls would clean up on the ones they missed. Over the first two games they held a 96-61 advantage in rebounds.
“Because your defense has an opportunity to play a team more than once,” Jackson said of the playoffs, “they learn the team, they know the personnel, they know how to get through the sequences the offense presents to them. So as they assume more, and start getting used to a team, they can step up the pressure.”
That will hold true for each of the teams the Bulls face in the playoffs.
As for the players themselves, the Bulls’ bench remains underrated. To say the Bulls’ second-stringers are better than the Heat’s is to damn them with faint praise: they outscored their Miami counterparts 63-45 over the first two games. Will Perdue scored 16 points in the opener and added a nifty behind-the-back assist for a Cliff Levingston jam on a fast break in the second game, when Levingston had 11 and Stacey King 12. In fact, when the Heat’s Bimbo Coles hit a three-pointer with four seconds left to bring Miami within 27 points, King responded in kind at the buzzer to preserve the 30-point lead, 120-90. With the starters, Cartwright was his usual solid, role-playing self, while John Paxson did an able, underappreciated job guarding the Heat’s shooting guard, Brian Shaw, allowing Jordan to take Smith.
As for Jordan, he remains the best individual player in basketball, but he’s also developed a keen, ruthless sense of team play–both on his own team and on the opponents’. He humbled Smith at a critical juncture of the first game, drawing himself up, spinning the ball in his hand like a crapshooter waiting for the luck to strike, and then driving past him for a soft-scoop lay-up. Then, in the second game, he did the same to Rice. He drew himself up, waited, waited–with Rice staring at the ball–and then got off a shot before Rice could leap to contest it. It swished through the hoop, and Jordan went jawing down the floor, slapping Rice on the rump and, no doubt, playfully telling him better luck next time, if not next year.
The separation of seasons is something he understands well–both from one year to the next and from the regular season to the playoffs. As he said when asked about the pressure of repeating, “We’ve already got the title for ’91. So it’s a whole different title, ’92 is totally different. Even though it’s looked upon as we’re the team to beat, so we have to defend in a sense, we’re fighting in another situation, trying to win a championship. I really don’t think we’re defending something materialistic. We have to go out and get it again. They can’t take back ’91.”