Cowering no longer, Bulls' Pippen turns from intimidatee to feared intimidator PRO BASKETBALL

June 11, 1993|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Philadelphia Inquirer

PHOENIX -- The cold snap continues here.

Only a hundred and one.

But it's a dry heat, is the local refrain. No humidity in the desert.

"Just like in a microwave?" Scottie Pippen asks.

Uh-huh.

"Well, a hundred and one," he reasons, smiling, "will still toast your buns."

Every once in a while a sly wit creeps out from this angular, veiny hawk-face who is built like an exclamation point.

And every once in a while, more so of late, you begin to think that perhaps you have grievously misjudged Scottie Pippen.

Mostly, his reputation is unsavory and unkind, that of the remora fish. He leeches in the vast shadow of the Great Shark Jordan, living on leavings.

His heart has been unflatteringly questioned. And it is commonly accepted around the NBA that at the first sharp elbow he will curl up into the fetal position.

Yes, the way to beat the Bulls is to concede Michael Jordan his 40 or 50 and to bully the extravagantly talented but skittish Pippen.

His concentration can be easily disrupted and if you play bump-thump with him, soon he will be looking for his parachute and not his shot.

Perhaps he will develop another convenient migraine.

But more and more in these playoffs he has demonstrated starch in his spine.

More and more he has become the silent assassin, slipping into the room, slipping a stiletto between the ribs, slipping out onto the balcony before the corpse is on the floor.

The sirens scream for Michael Jordan, but it is Scottie Pippen, shotgun-rider, who is quietly beating down his slanderous reputation.

"We held Michael down as best we could," Charles Barkley said after the Suns had lost Game 1 of the NBA Finals, a game in which they never had the lead. "But we've got to find a way to slow down Scottie."

Not likely.

The Suns, even though they received a heart transplant from Barkley and have been toughened, cannot play thug-ball. They are not equipped, physically or emotionally, to play half-court blackjack defense. Their inclination is to run. Like Barkley himself, they play only occasional defense. They led the league in scoring, which is why they led the league in victories.

Pippen flourishes in this style, when the court is transformed into the Autobahn, and there is no speed limit.

Defenders as tall as he cannot keep up with him, and shorter ones quickly become post-up fodder.

He is a prototype.

He laid 27 on the Suns in Game 1. Only two baskets fewer than Jordan. But Jordan played center ring as usual, as much the story for breaking his two-week silence as for his play. We take his performance for granted; his ban on conversation was something new, hence intriguing.

So Pippen, as usual, again was the choice of those mini-cams that had been outflanked in the Jordan crush.

Jordan, as is his wont, took over late or whenever peril loomed. But what got lost was how Pippen kept the Bulls afloat until Jordan dropped into passing gear. Such a pattern develops frequently.

Perhaps it is time to begin taking Pippen seriously. Perhaps it would be easier to do so if he answered to a name that doesn't belong to a fourth-grader.

"Scottie" sounds passive. Pippen no longer is.

This began to emerge in the series with the loutish Knicks. In the very first game he clouted Doc Rivers, one of those staple-gun fouls in which he is usually the receiver. In the second game, he flared over a foul called against him, impaled the referee with a pass and earned himself ejection.

The Bulls were not happy to see his banishment, but amongst themselves they smiled in delight. "Scottie's got a pulse!"

Suddenly, Pippen seemed to transform.

"Maybe I was always tougher than people thought," he suggests.

Maybe.

"He got labeled as our soft spot," said Phil Jackson, the coach. "If you think that way, it's your problem, not Scottie's."

The Bulls swept the Knicks. Well, after losing the first two. Pippen hit all the big shots in the clincher, and in most of the other games, too.

"His play was really the key to the whole series," Patrick Ewing reflected afterward.

It has been suggested that Scottie Pippen has arrived.

His eyebrows form two elegant arches.

"I got two rings," he says. "So I think I arrived a couple of years ago."

No one noticed. But then they seldom do.

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