INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- John Paxson has suffered with an identity crisis for a long time.
Playing his first two NBA seasons as a reserve with the San Antonio Spurs and the past five in the giant shadow of Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan, he was about as visible as a guy in protective custody.
Even when recognized in public, he is often mistaken for his older brother, Jim, who had 11 solid seasons in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics before retiring a year ago. But John Paxson, career caddie, may be emerging from the shadows.
His outstanding play against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals is one of the main reasons the Bulls are in position to clinch their first championship with a victory at The Forum tonight.
For all of the hoopla over Jordan's matchup with the Lakers' Magic Johnson, the biggest mismatch in the finals has been Paxson vs. Byron Scott.
Paxson, 30, is averaging 11.8 points on 62 percent shooting (23-for-37), while Scott, who has hit 28 percent of his field-goal attempts (5-for-18), is averaging 4.5 points.
Going into this series, the Paxson-Scott matchup was the one the Lakers felt they could exploit best because of Scott's superior speed and playoff experience. But Scott has been so frustrated by Paxson's dogged defense that he has been reluctant to shoot.
Meanwhile, Paxson is exploiting the Lakers' double-team tactics against Jordan by consistently making open jump shots. During one stretch, he hit 10 straight shots.
Nerves and uncertainty led to Paxson's making only three of seven shots in the opening-game loss in Chicago, after which he was verbally abused by Jordan for playing soft.
"Michael says things to challenge us," said Paxson. "He just reminded me that I couldn't pass up open shots, that I had to take them and bury them."
Paxson heeded Jordan's advice, and, in the past three games, has shot 20-for-30 from the field. "I've had more spot-up jumpers in these four games than in all the other playoff series," he said.
Over six seasons, Jordan and Paxson have learned to read each
other on the court without even a nod.
"I feel the defensive heat around me and search for John," Jordan said. "When he's in his shooting rhythm, he can't be stopped."
Guards with a scoring mentality might balk at playing alongside Jordan, who has averaged more than 23 shots a game in his NBA career. But Paxson, acquired as a free agent in 1985, would not have it any other way.
"I had a chance to play elsewhere after becoming a free agent, but I wanted to play with Michael," Paxson said. "You have to learn to play with Michael and be willing to accept a role, but that's been easy for me.
"It's allowed me to showcase what I do best, shooting the open jumper. If I had to create one-on-one, that wouldn't be my normal game."
But Paxson's value to the Bulls goes beyond his outside jumper. Coach Phil Jackson uses him as his point guard, offensively and defensively.
"He initiates our offense," Jackson said. "He's the guy we want to have the ball if we're trying to go down low to Horace Grant or Bill
Cartwright. If we want to settle down, we also put the ball in John's hands. He's our stabilizer."
Defensively, Paxson is usually at the point of attack, pressuring Scott out high or double-teaming Johnson in the multiple traps the Bulls have used to disrupt the Lakers.
Paxson might be the biggest bargain acquisition general manager Jerry Krause has made in building the Bulls around Jordan.
The Spurs owed Chicago $200,000 as final settlement for a 1982 Artis Gilmore-Dave Corzine swap. But Krause agreed to erase the debt if the Spurs agreed to match his 1985 contract offer to Paxson.
"Yeah, I'd say it was a pretty good deal," said Krause.
And so does Paxson, who is negotiating a new contract with the Bulls, with Jordan in full support.
Asked whether he was ready to bask in the new-found attention, Paxson laughed and said: "No way. Even in the summer, I can't take a day off. I'm always in the gym working out.
"I've always been afraid that if I sit out a game, I'd be like Wally Pipp -- miss one game and never be seen again."