Somewhere along the way, their dominance became commonplace.
They cruised through the regular season with such ease that even
their most astounding accomplishments began to take on an air of
inevitability. Of course the Chicago Bulls won an NBA-record 72
games. Why wouldn't they? If you've watched them play, you
realize that the only thing that calls for an explanation is how
on earth they lost 10.
So dismiss the victories. As the NBA playoffs begin on Thursday,
Chicago's first-round opponent, the Miami Heat, and the ensuing
opposition the Bulls may face should focus on those 10 losses
(list, right). And throw out the final one, a 100-99 defeat to
the Indiana Pacers last Saturday, because, with the playoffs
about to begin, Chicago rested its starters.
In an effort to keep the postseason from turning into little
more than a Bulls' victory lap, we have analyzed the losses and
now offer 10 suggestions that aren't really ways to beat Chicago
but rather the keys to having a chance of getting past the Bulls.
1. Attack Their Backcourt
If you have a small, quick guard, give him the ball and let him
create. The Toronto Raptors' 5'10" Damon Stoudamire, who had 30
points and 11 assists in Toronto's defeat of Chicago; the Denver
Nuggets' 6'1" Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (32 and nine); the Charlotte
Hornets' 6'1" Kenny Anderson (20 and two); and the Phoenix Suns'
6'1" Kevin Johnson (20 and 10) all drove their teams to victory
over the Bulls, and the Heat will need a similar contribution
from 6-foot point guard Tim Hardaway. This is where Chicago's
lack of a true point guard makes it vulnerable, because Michael
Jordan, who's 6'6", hates chasing the little whippersnappers
around. If you don't have one of those compact point guards, a
luxury model will do: 6'7" Anfernee Hardaway scored 36 points in
the Orlando Magic's win over the Bulls, and the Seattle
SuperSonics' 6'4" Gary Payton registered 26 points and 11
assists in his team's victory. Any team that hopes to beat
Chicago will need a guard who can make Jordan and his 6'6"
backcourt mate, Ron Harper, work harder than usual on defense.
2. Hold Scottie Pippen to loss than 20 points
Pippen, a forward who averaged 19.4 points this season, reached
20 in only one of Chicago's losses (26 in a Dec. 26 defeat by
Indiana). When he struggles, so might the Bulls; he scored 14.9
points a game on 36.4% shooting in their defeats. Physical
playoff opponents--somewhere, Miami coach Pat Riley is
smiling--might reduce Pippen to similar numbers because he's
clearly not over the knee, ankle and back ailments that forced
him to miss five games in March. He's been settling for jump
shots instead of taking the ball to the basket, which is one of
the reasons he shot only 42.4% in the 16 games since his return.
A smart team will take a page from the old "Bad Boys" Detroit
Pistons and the Riley-era New York Knicks and bang Pippen around
early and often.
3. Steal the Bulls' red road uniforms
There must have been kryptonite in Chicago's other road outfits,
the black ones with red pinstripes that looked like they were
made from Al Capone's suits. When the Bulls wore black, they
were 8-4. In their traditional red they were 25-4. "Dump 'em,"
reserve guard Steve Kerr said after black-clad Chicago lost to
New York in March. The Bulls did just that, but if their red
uniforms were to, ahem, disappear, well....
4. Keep a body on Dennis Rodman at all times
Yeah, we know, that's what Madonna said. But the idea is to
rotate two or three muscular players against Rodman in order to
keep him from dominating the boards. That's what Phoenix did
with Charles Barkley, A.C. Green and Wayman Tisdale. Indiana did
it with Antonio and Dale Davis, Denver with LaPhonso Ellis and
Antonio McDyess, New York with Anthony Mason and J.R. Reid. In
their wins, all those teams kept Rodman below his league-leading
average of 14.88 rebounds a game. In fact, when Rodman attained
his average, the Bulls lost only once, to the Hornets. If you
need more proof of his value, note that three of Chicago's nine
losses in question came when the Human Tattoo didn't play, twice
because of injury and once because of suspension.
5. At all costs, contain... Kerr?
Limit Kerr, whose 51.5% three-point shooting average was second
in the NBA, to three or fewer trey attempts a game, and you'll
have a chance to beat the Bulls. Chicago lost only once when
Kerr connected on at least three shots from beyond the
three-point arc. But in only one of its losses was he allowed to
even shoot that many. Keep a man on him at all times, so he
can't square up for his jumper. And if he does get loose, run a
defender at him and make him put the ball on the floor.
6. Send the Bulls to the foul line
Chicago ranked 14th in the league in free-throw shooting, at
74.6%, but its percentage was 69.6% or lower in five of the nine
losses in question, and the Bulls have some individual weak
links. Pippen's struggles at the line were key factors in
Chicago's defeats at the hands of Seattle (when he hit 2 of 11)
and Orlando (2 of 6). Also, it would be wise to foul Rodman, who
shot fewer than two free throws per game--it's hard to put him
on the line because he is so rarely in the act of
shooting--which was fortunate for the Bulls. He shoots free
throws with such apparent disdain that he made only 52.8%. But
even if Rodman should make more of his free throws than usual,
fouling him would be less demoralizing than having him grab an
offensive rebound and restart the Bulls' offense. Plus, being
hacked repeatedly might set him off. Intentionally encourage a
Rodman meltdown? Absolutely. Hey, do you want to beat Chicago or
7. Put a registration desk in Toni Kukoc's house
And a couple of chocolates on his pillow at night. Do whatever
it takes to convince Kukoc, the Bulls' 6'11" swingman, that he's
on the road, because he wasn't nearly as effective away from
home as he was at the United Center. At home Kukoc averaged 15.1
points and shot 55.9% from the floor but dropped to 10.8 and
41.4% on the road. Don't try to figure it out. Just have someone
bring a tray to his place in the morning, knock on the front
door and say, "Room service."
8. Make Jordan shoot as much as possible
This may sound like suicide, but when Jordan attempted fewer
than 20 field goals, the Bulls won 95% of their games; when he
tried 20 or more, they won 85%. In those nine losses, he
averaged 23.2 shots. More attempts by Jordan often meant that
the Chicago offense wasn't operating at peak efficiency and he
ended up taking shots he didn't want in order to beat the
24-second clock. "I think he gets disgusted with his teammates
some nights when it seems like they just want to stand around
and watch him," says one Eastern Conference coach. In the first
loss to Indiana, Jordan scored 30 points but made only 11 of 28
shots. Against Denver, he had 39 points on 13-of-29 shooting.
Those are the kinds of numbers opponents don't mind seeing from
9. Don't fall in love with your center
Much has been made of the Bulls' weakness in the pivot with the
combination of Luc Longley and backup Bill Wennington, but
Chicago was a combined 12-2 against the Knicks' Patrick Ewing,
the Heat's Alonzo Mourning, the Houston Rockets' Hakeem
Olajuwon, the Magic's Shaquille O'Neal and the San Antonio
Spurs' David Robinson. Moreover, Ewing (26 points, 14 rebounds)
was the only one of the big five who had an exceptional game in
a win over Chicago. The Bulls are so cognizant of their
vulnerability at center that they have become adept at
pressuring guards trying to make the entry pass and at
double-teaming centers when the ball goes inside. "Sometimes
teams get out of their offense by trying to pound it inside,
pound it inside," says Pippen. "We like that."
10. If all else fails, hire Dan Aykroyd and Daniel Stern
We would advise Jordan to watch his back. In the recently
released movie Celtic Pride, Aykroyd and Stern play obsessed
Boston fans who kidnap a rival playoff team's star player
(portrayed by Damon Wayans). Don't laugh. Farfetched as this
scheme may seem, against the Bulls it has about as much chance
of working as anything else.
Here's a list of the Chicago Bulls' defeats during the regular season.
Nov. 14: Orlando Magic 94, Bulls 88
Nov. 26: Seattle SuperSonics 97, Bulls 92
Dec. 26: Indiana Pacers 103, Bulls 97
Feb. 4: Denver Nuggets 105, Bulls 99
Feb. 6: Phoenix Suns 106, Bulls 96
Feb. 23: Miami Heat 113, Bulls 104
March 10: New York Knicks 104, Bulls 72
March 24: Toronto Raptors 109, Bulls 108
April 8: Charlotte Hornets 98, Bulls 97*
April 20: Indiana Pacers 100, Bulls 99*