Michael Jordan is the king of the NBA, and you could even make the argument that Dennis Rodman is the league's queen.
Indeed, the Chicago Bulls have been hoops royalty for years, but the reign is almost over. With Phil Jackson stepping down, Scottie Pippen becoming a free agent and likely donning a Phoenix Suns or some other jersey next season and Jordan contemplating retirement, this is the final running of the Bulls, no question about it.What remains a mystery is whether the Bulls will go out as champions or runners-up. Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers showed a few chinks in the Chicago armor. The Utah Jazz - with homecourt advantage, good health and plenty of rest - may never have another opportunity like this to win the world title.
But for the Jazz to dethrone the champs, here are a few things they must do:
- Get the ball in Karl Malone's hands.
Malone didn't have a great series last year in Bulls-Jazz I. He missed crucial free throws at the end of Game 1 and shot only 44 percent from the field for the series. Still, he's the reason the Jazz are where they are this year and the biggest single match-up problem for the Bulls. Brian Williams played the best defense on Malone last year, and he's gone. Rodman has a hard time guarding the Mailman. , meaning Chicago will likely go with Luc Longley on him. Malone should be able to fire 17-foot jumpers at will.
- Continue to get solid play out of the bench.
The Jazz have a decided depth advantage. With Chicago coming off a grueling seven-game series, the Jazz reserves can further add to the Bulls' fatigue. Shandon Anderson and Chris Morris will also draw the assignment to guard Jordan. They'll need to at least make him work.
- Don't let Bulls' peripheral players beat them.
The Jazz should concede 30 points per night to Jordan. It's going to happen, so Utah needn't stress over it. They need to make sure guys like Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper and Steve Kerr don't kill them. Utah did this brilliantly in the Lakers series, as Shaq went for big numbers while his supporting crew struggled.
- Take advantage of the home court.
The Jazz don't have to win a game in the United Center and they can still be world champs. The first game will be big, since the Jazz have been off for two months, or so it seems. It may take them some time to get back into the swing, even with Wednesday's opener being in the friendly - and ear-piercing - confines of the Delta Center. The team that has won Game 1 has won eight of the past nine titles.
- Forget the fact that hundreds of millions of people are watching worldwide.
The Finals, especially with Jordan around, are truly an international event. Malone admitted last season that he was thinking about the millions of people watching at home when he stepped to the foul line at the end of one game. The Jazz need to forget the audience and play.
Then again, the Jazz could be headed for trouble and heartbreak once again because:
- Jordan is, well, Jordan.
In every basketball season Jordan has started since 1990, the Bulls have come out as NBA champs. Why should that change? He's the greatest player ever and still has plenty of game left.
- The Jazz may be rusty.
Most workers would love to have 10 days off, but for a basketball team awaiting its most important series ever, it's far too long. Remember, all Chicago has to do is win one of the first two to shift homecourt advantage.
- Of the Bulls' mystique.
The Bulls simply don't lose in the Finals. They are five-and-oh in the last seven years.
- The Jazz are simply too short.
The Bulls' starting guards and small forward go 6-6, 6-6, 6-7. Utah's go 6-0, 6-4, 6-7.
- Jordan is, well, Jordan.
Jeff Hornacek cuts to the perimeter. Howard Eisley passes him the ball and then cuts to the basket around a Karl Malone screen. If Eisley loses his man, Honacek hits him with the pass. Should play continue, Malone steps out to reverse the ball, while Eisley runs the baseline.