What'd you expect? Michael Jordan all but guaranteed a victory, and whatever Mike wants, Mike gets.
Of course, there's that whole other matter concerning the unwanted breakup of the Bulls, but Jordan wasn't discussing that issue Sunday night.He was too busy savoring Chicago's hard-fought 88-83 Game 7 victory over Indiana, which means another NBA Finals appearance for the defending champs.
"At no point in time during the course of the 48 minutes did I think negative about what we can accomplish as a team," Jordan said. "I always kept positive thoughts in my mind. We had to work extra hard to get it, but I never doubted it."
Not even when Chicago fell behind by 13 in the first quarter and then again by three midway through the fourth quarter? "No," said Jordan, bearing his huge grin.
The victory gave Chicago the 4-3 edge in the Eastern Conference finals, a series Scottie Pippen dubbed "the toughest ever."
But it was also fun, he added. "It was a very enjoyable series compared to some of our previous series with the Knicks and all those altercations. It was a very clean-cut, hard-fought series, and both teams gave their best."
Sunday night's first quarter probably wasn't much fun, though. The Pacers picked up where they left off in Game 6 by making their first eight shots and building a 20-7 lead.
It was almost a reversal of roles from the Game 5 debacle. Indiana as a team suddenly played perfect basketball, while Chicago made the mistakes and missed the easy shots.
"I thought we came out in the first quarter and were standing around, and they came out in the first quarter and just kept coming at us," said Chicago coach Phil Jackson.
But through it all, a theme was developing - the Pacers weren't rebounding. Whether it was on the offensive or defensive glass, they just couldn't get their hands on the ball.
After the first quarter, Chicago had a 6-1 edge in offensive rebounds, despite trailing 27-19.
Despite the rebounding numbers, Indiana was accomplishing exactly what it wanted, and the crowd was growing restless. There was a palpable anxiety in the United Center, and with each passing minute it increased.
No one wanted to face the fact that Sunday night could have been the finale of Jordan's farewell tour, but everyone knew it. Jordan himself was conscious of the scenario, but it wasn't on his mind during the game.
Despite trailing by 13 - Indiana's largest lead of the entire series - Chicago continued pound-ing the glass and playing tough defense.
The Bulls went on a 33-13 run during the next 14 minutes to build a 40-33 lead. With Chicago in great position to take a similar comfort zone into halftime, the Pacers' Reggie Miller hit a pair 3-pointers within a span of 30 seconds to cut the deficit to three at the intermission.
"At halftime, Mike was real upset because we had an opportunity to lead by nine, and he gave the guys a little lecture about poise and control," said Jackson.
In Jordan's words: "I just told them to shut up and play."
Both teams came out hot in the third quarter. Chicago scored on six of its first seven possessions, while the Pacers put points up on five of their first six trips. Toni Kukoc sparked the Bulls in the third with 14 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting, including three 3s.
Still, Chicago couldn't put Indiana away. Leading by eight with two minutes remaining, the Bulls went scoreless and Indiana again trimmed the lead to within striking distance.
Rejuvenated by the fact the Bulls didn't pummel them, the Pacers plugged on and built a 77-74 lead. After a Jordan miss, Rik Smits and Jordan scrambled for the ball, resulting in a jump. Naturally the 7-foot-4 Smits should get it, but he tipped it to Pippen, and on that possession, Steve Kerr hit a trey to tie it up.
"We just didn't execute," said Pacers coach Larry Bird. "I knew we would've scored on our next possession."
Instead, it was a five-point swing, something Bird said changed the complexion of the game. In reality, rebounding played the ultimate spoiler.
With the game tied at 79, Luc Longley missed a jumper, but Pippen grabbed the board and then scored.
Indiana was still right there, trailing 87-83 with 1:22 remaining. Then Ron Harper stole the ball from Mark Jackson, enabling Chicago to kill more time. The Pacers played tough defense and forced Jordan into a tough shot, which he missed. Perfect - except for the rebound. Longley pulled it down, allowing the Bulls to waste another 24 seconds.
"We've been talking about it all year," said Bird. "Today we were just outmatched. A lot of those rebounds just ripped our hearts out."
By the time the Pacers got the ball and finally took a shot, only 13 seconds remained in the game and their season.
"I thought we had a good enough team to come in here and win this series," said Bird. "I knew I'd get the effort, I just needed a couple more stars to play big."
Smits cooled down considerably, scoring only 13 after his Godzilla-like effort in Game 6. Though Miller finished with 22 points, he had zero points on only one shot attempt in the fourth quarter.
"I was able to get through the screens and not give him any fresh looks," said Jordan.
Even if Miller had been in his zone, his team still couldn't rebound, and that was going to catch with Indiana eventually. The Bulls outrebounded the Pacers 50-34, including a 22-4 edge on the offensive end.
"We were much quicker than them tonight, likewise we didn't do that in Indiana," said Pippen. "They were the aggressor at home, and when you're the aggressor, you usually get the call. Home-court advantage is very important in the playoffs, and if they had had homecourt advantage, it may have been a different outcome. But we'll never know."
Game 1 Chicago
June 3 at UTAH
Wed. TV, TIME: NBC, 7 p.m.
Game 2 Chicago
June 5 at UTAH
Fri. TV, TIME: NBC, 7 p.m.
Game 3 UTAH
June 7 at Chicago
Sun. TV, TIME: NBC, 5:30 p.m.
Game 4 UTAH
June 10 at Chicago
Wed. TV, TIME: NBC, 7 p.m.
Game 5 UTAH
June 12 at Chicago
TV TIME: NBC, 7:00 p.m.
Game 6 Chicago
June 14 at UTAH
TV, TIME: NBC, 5:30 p.m.
Game 1 Chicago
June 17 at UTAH
TV, TIME: NBC, 7 p.m.
Bulls 88, Pacers 83
... FG FT Reb
INDI Min M-A M-A O-T A PF Pts
Mullin 21 3-5 1-1 0-3 1 4 7
D.Davis 37 3-6 3-10 2-9 3 2 9
Smits 28 3-7 7-8 0-4 3 5 13
Jackson 31 3-8 3-4 0-4 6 3 11
Miller 41 7-13 4-4 0-0 4 3 22
A.Davis 22 2-4 3-4 2-10 0 6 7
McKey 27 1-4 1-2 0-2 0 5 3
Rose 16 3-4 1-3 0-1 0 1 7
Best 17 2-5 0-1 0-1 1 4 4
Totals 240 27-56 23-37 4-34 18 33 83
Percentages: FG .482, FT .622. 3-Point Goals: 6-16, .375 (Miller 4-7, Jackson 2-4, Mullin 0-1, McKey 0-2, Best 0-2). Team Rebounds: 13. Blocked shots: 2 (D.Davis 2). Turnovers: 13 (Smits 2, Jackson 2, Miller 2, A.Davis 2, Mullin, McKey, Rose, Best, team). Steals: 5 (Miller 2, D.Davis, Jackson, Best). Technical fouls: None. Illegal defense: None.
... FG FT Reb
CHIC Min M-A M-A O-T A PF Pts
Pippen 39 6-18 5-9 6-12 3 5 17
Kukoc 33 7-11 4-5 1-4 1 3 21
Longley 34 1-5 1-2 2-9 2 5 3
Harper 29 1-4 2-6 2-3 2 2 4
Jordan 42 9-25 10-15 5-9 8 3 28
Rodman 27 1-4 0-2 3-6 1 5 2
Burrell 5 1-1 0-0 0-0 0 2 2
Kerr 19 3-7 2-2 1-1 0 3 11
Buechler 11 0-1 0-0 1-5 1 2 0
Simpkins 1 0-0 0-0 1-1 0 0 0
Totals 240 29-76 24-41 22-50 18 30 88
Percentages: FG .382, FT .585. 3-Point Goals: 6-15, .400 (Kukoc 3-4, Kerr 3-5, Rodman 0-1, Pippen 0-5). Team Rebounds: 10. Blocked shots: 2 (Pippen, Rodman). Turnovers: 9 (Pippen 3, Longley 2, Jordan 2, Kukoc, Rodman). Steals: 7 (Pippen 2, Longley 2, Kukoc, Harper, Kerr). Technical foul: Harper, 2:10 second. Illegal defense: None.
Indiana 27 18 20 18-83
Chicago 19 29 21 19-88
A-23,844 (21,711). T-2:34.
Officials-Hugh Evans, Dick Bavetta, Jack Nies.