Suns' problem: Who'll guard Pippen? PRO BASKETBALL

June 08, 1993|By Bob Cohn | Bob Cohn,Arizona Republic

As he took the stage he has dreamed of performing on, it was no surprise Charles Barkley was in top form yesterday, the first official hype day preceding the NBA Finals between the Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls. Let Michael Jordan remain mute. Chuck cannot only fill the lane, but also the word void.

But Barkley's discourses on his alleged relationship with Madonna and his highly anticipated square-off against Jordan were only a couple of themes of the day. In other clusters gathered on the America West Arena practice floor, the hot topic was the Scottie Pippen Problem.

It's definitely the Suns' problem.

Basically, it comes down to the simple fact that two does not equal one. The Bulls have two players capable of wreaking a great deal of offensive havoc, Jordan and Pippen. The Suns have one defensive whiz capable of bothering them, but only one at a time -- Dan Majerle.

In Game 1 tomorrow night, Majerle, the Suns' 6-foot-6 guard and best in-your-jock defender, is expected to be assigned to check the 6-6 Jordan, who, inch-for-inch, is the best offensive player ever to play the game. Fair enough.

But cloning technology still being somewhat primitive, the Suns are stuck with a solitary Majerle. So who draws the initial assignment on Pippen, the Bulls' 6-7 small forward capable of displaying his own Jordan-like pyrotechnics at any given moment? As it stands now, Richard Dumas.

Hence, the Scottie Pippen Problem.

Dumas, who has started 14 playoff games, did not play in the Suns' victory over Seattle in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. He had been struggling, but Bulls coach Phil Jackson still summed it up when he termed the circumstance "unique."

A 6-7 rookie with vast potential, Dumas loves to put the ball in the basket. But his inclination, like many young scorers, is to regard defense as a nuisance to be endured until the next possession. With Dumas, this often happens when the ball drops through the net. It's not that he can't play defense; on the contrary, he is quick and athletic. He just needs to understand its importance and then go out and do it.

He probably understands now. Suns coach Paul Westphal called Pippen, a Dream Teammate of Barkley and Jordan, "the standard for small forwards in this league." On the occasions Jordan was stifled by the Knicks during the Bulls' six-game victory in the Eastern Conference finals, Pippen took over. In Games 5 and 6 that broke the 2-2 deadlock, Pippen was 21 of 41 from the field for 52 points. Jordan had 53 points, but shot a mere 19 for 49.

"Scottie Pippen's play was the key to the series," Knicks center Patrick Ewing said. "When we shut him down in New York, we won the first two. We just couldn't do it the rest of the way."

TC If the tenacious Knicks couldn't, can the Suns? Dumas won't be solely responsible for Pippen. Majerle will take a break from Jordan and do what he can. Others, maybe even Barkley, will get a turn. The Suns will double-team and help out, using their quickness, and who's to say Dumas won't wear Pippen out with his own offensive game?

Then again, as Suns guard Danny Ainge said, "I don't know if anyone matches up with Scottie Pippen."

Actually, there is one player who does. He's not here, though. The Suns are good enough to win this thing, and they might be able to simply outrun and outscore the Bulls. But just imagine (and get a little greedy) if they had pulled off that trade for Dennis Rodman earlier in the year. They were close. Very close. But the Detroit Pistons reportedly wanted Dumas as part of the package for Rodman, and the Suns said no. Westphal, above all others, has complete faith in Dumas, the Game 7 benching notwithstanding.

But envision the spindly, 6-8 Rodman, a rebounding machine, a relentless defender, playing opposite Barkley at the forward position. Think of Rodman being Pippen's worst nightmare, as he was not long ago when the Pistons were winning championships, beating the Bulls along the way.

OK, so Rodman has had a few problems. And he's 32. So what? He desperately wanted to play here, and Barkley and Danny Ainge would have kept him in line. Barkley, in fact, has lobbied to get Rodman here.

As for his age, isn't the whole idea to win now? Keeping Dumas might prove a better investment for the future, but the Suns might not get this close again. They made all the right moves to get to this point. Too bad if the one move they didn't make keeps them from getting any further.

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