CHICAGO -- Scottie Pippen can't count how many times he has had the "C" word, thrown in his face. That's "C" as in choke.
If it were not for the statute of limitations, the Chicago Bulls small forward would probably be accused of setting the Great Chicago Fire.
He has certainly been branded the Bulls' principal scapegoat for their occasional playoff failures the past three years, dating to his ill-timed migraine in the seventh game of the 1990 Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons.
His reputation of coming up small in big games continues to haunt him in this season's playoffs, even raising questions from teammate Michael Jordan about his competitive nature.
After Pippen struggled in crunch time in games 2 and 4 of thfinals against the Portland Trail Blazers, Jordan said, "I think at this point Scottie may be a little unsure of himself in certain games."
But Jordan was the first to praise Pippen after Pippen scored 24 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and had seven assists in the Bulls' 119-106 victory in Game 5 on Friday night in Portland, Ore., putting Chicago in position to wrap up its second NBA title here tonight.
"Scottie came up real big," said Jordan, who set a personal championship best with 46 points. "Everyone knows what he means to the success of our team. We work hand in hand, and when we're both playing well, the defense really can't control us."
Known as Jordan's "shadow" until he gained All-Star status and an Olympic basketball berth while also gaining a national identity with a lucrative Nike endorsement, Pippen usually finds himself having to defend his reputation as a budding superstar.
"I guess I've carved my own niche, because every time things go wrong, I seem to be the scapegoat," he said. "I wish Michael was still getting all the attention. Even after winning a championship, the fans and media won't let that one game in Detroit die.
"When I play well and the Bulls lose, the media writes thaScottie lost when it was really the Bulls that lost. They don't think I'm helping the team unless I'm scoring a lot of points. When we lose, I don't suffer. We all suffer."
But Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who credited Pippen with "being the main difference" in Game 5, says the harsh and often unwarranted criticism comes with the territory.
"There is so much projected of Scottie," Jackson told the Chicago Sun-Times. "He's gone from a star to a superstar to an Olympian, and sometimes it's hard to live up to that billing.
"Whenever he slips, people are going to try to say it's not a physical problem, but a mental one.
"They're going to go back to that final game against Detroit i1990 and try to pick the scab open. But Scottie always seems able to pick himself off the canvas before he's counted out."
Pippen, who arrived in the NBA without fanfare from Central Arkansas College, has a staunch defender in Bulls power forward Horace Grant.
"Scottie is not allowed to have a bad game by the media," Grant said. "In my case, I play a limited offensive role, and no one expects me to set the house on fire. But if I got all the heat that Scottie gets, I'd probably curse everyone out."
Pippen's scoring is down slightly in the playoffs, but he has been playing with assorted injuries, including a sprained ankle and sore wrist. But he has not asked to sit out a game, and his versatility as a scorer, ball-handler, rebounder and
tough defender has posed a major problem for the Blazers.
"Scottie is our one player who can play so many roles," Bulls assistant coach Johnny Bach said. "He can bring the ball up the floor like a point guard, he can rebound and break out with it. He can get ahead of the ball and attack. With Jordan, he gives us that famous 1-2 punch that everyone in sports looks for."
Pippen realizes that sharing the court with Jordan is a double-edged sword, with comparisons of their basketball gifts inevitable.
"Playing with a guy like Michael, you have to take a lot of pride in what you're doing," he said. "You don't want to fall that far behind. Even though you know you'll always have to take a back seat to him, you always want to be competitive.
"I like to feel I could have still been as successful as I am now if not for Michael," Pippen said. "But I don't know if this team would have been successful."
Said Jordan: "Scottie still hasn't reached his full potential. He's starting to show the world now that he can also be a franchise-type player."
The Bulls showed their appreciation of Pippen last year by signing him to an eight-year contract extension worth $20.9 million. "I don't have Michael's bucks yet," he said, "but I'm working on it."
(Chicago leads series, 3-2) Game 1: Chicago 122, Portland 89
Game 2: Portland 115, Chicago 104, OT
Game 3: Chicago 94, Portland 84
Game 4: Portland 93, Chicago 88
Game 5: Chicago 119, Portland 106
Today: at Chicago, 7 p.m.
Wednesday: at Chicago, 9 p.m.*
* - if necessary