A healthy Scottie Pippen means a healthy bottom line for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.
The Utah Jazz won't argue.Though many of his individual statistics are down, Pippen's recovery from a soft-tissue injury on the bottom of his left foot may have a lot to do with Chicago's improved play against Utah. A year ago, the Jazz pushed the Bulls to six games. In 1998, Chicago holds a 2-1 advantage - just an overtime loss away from being 3-0.
So much for the theory that the two-time defending champions, who are seeking their second three-peat in the decade, would struggle without Brian Williams and Jason Caffey. Williams signed a mega-bucks free agent deal with Detroit in the offseason, while Caffey was later dealt to Golden State.
Pippen has more than compensated for their departures. With his sore foot repaired by surgery last fall, the Bulls forward has spearheaded a defensive effort that has dramatically altered the NBA Finals from a year ago. Chicago has Utah scoring less, fouling more, shooting worse, grabbing fewer rebounds and turning the ball over with additional frequency.
"Defense wins championships," Michael Jordan said. "There's a certain understanding here, a certain connection between all five guys on the basketball court. And Scottie sets the tone."
Jordan said Chicago's defensive rotations allow him and Pippen to gamble a little bit. The aggressive approach, he said, is a must if the Bulls wish to defeat the Jazz and claim their sixth NBA championship.
"It makes a huge difference," center Luc Longley said of having Pippen healthy enough to accept a variety of defensive assignments. The 6-foot-7 swingman even covered Indiana point guard Mark Jackson in the Eastern Conference Finals.
"We've actually gone with a small rotation with Toni (Kukoc) playing forward, and with Scottie's added size, it's really balanced it out," Longley added. "It's helped a lot. I really like that line-up."
Teammate Steve Kerr, meanwhile, praises Pippen's defense on Utah's big men.
"I think one of the keys is we are able to put Scottie on either Greg Foster or Greg Ostertag, and he is able to roam freely from those guys and disrupt the pick and roll," Kerr said. "So he is coming over to help out on (John) Stockton and on (Karl) Malone. That gives us a lot of help in trying to cover them."
Malone said Pippen's versatility makes him unique, but Utah can counter his defensive efforts with better spacing to negate his quickness.
"Scottie's very athletic, very talented and recovers quickly," Malone said. "He could be the best defensive player playing."
However, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan points out Pippen isn't guarding all five of his players at once. It only seems that way, said Bryon Russell, because he's playing illegal defense. Stockton noted that Utah will need to expose that better in Game 4.
Chicago coach Phil Jackson discounted such talk. He said Pippen has plenty of help defensively. He refers to Pippen, Jordan, Longley, Ron Harper and Dennis Rodman as the dobermans. Each played a key role in limiting Utah to an NBA-record low 54 points in Game 3.
"We do a very fine job as a team," Harper said. "This is a team sport."
Though, to a man, the Bulls admit this team is powered by Jordan and Pippen. Each was named to the NBA's 50 greatest players list. And Pippen credits the other for keeping Chicago on top of its game.
"You have two guys out there who are a total threat and who have all-around ability to play hard on not only one end of the court," Pippen said while acknowledging his role. "When Michael is not out there on the court I look to be more aggressive on the offensive end. When he is out there, I look to be more aggressive defensively because I feel I can create things on the defensive end that he can do on the offensive end."
So far, so good. The same can be said of contributions in the series by Kukoc and Rodman. Each has provided additional energy for the Bulls. Kukoc primarily on offense and the man he replaced in the starting line-up on defense.
All said, Chicago is doing quite fine, thank you - with a roster that at least on paper appears weaker than one year ago.
"I don't think we're a better team necessarily. I think we'd be getting ahead of ourselves if after one exeptional game to start comparing them," Longley said. "We've got a lot of work to do yet."