CHICAGO -- If Michael Jordan looked somewhat confused as he slowly walked off the court at game's end last night, there was a good reason -- success was all he had known in the playoffs since 1990, the last time he played on a team that was eliminated.
A fourth title is what Jordan sought when he returned to the NBA this season. But an Orlando Magic team that has matured greatly during the playoffs ended Jordan's hoop dreams, closing with 14 straight points to take a 108-102 victory over the Chicago Bulls and earn a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
In the end it was a former teammate of Jordan's, Horace Grant, who was hoisted in the air as Orlando, which seemed to be facing a Game 7 at home, closed out the series, four games to two. The Magic awaits the winner of the Indiana Pacers-New York Knicks series.
"We showed a lot of emotion and poise and did the things we had to do," said center Shaquille O'Neal, who led Orlando with 27 points and 13 rebounds. "We are a good team and we beat a good team. I guess we have become the road warriors."
That is the amazing thing about Orlando, which stumbled on the road down the stretch during the regular season and appeared to be vulnerable entering the playoffs. Orlando's playoff road mark this season is 4-1, including two impressive wins in Chicago.
Last night, the Magic nearly gave the game away, committing seven of its 17 turnovers in the fourth quarter as the Bulls gained control.
Chicago's lead was 102-94 after a three-pointer by B. J. Armstrong with 3:24 left. But Orlando, with Grant on the bench with a dislocated finger, took the lead for good with 42 seconds left on a jumper by Nick Anderson.
Chicago had seven opportunities to come back. On the next possession Jordan fed a wide-open Luc Longley, who missed a layup. After Dennis Scott made a free throw with 28 seconds left to give Orlando a two-point lead, Jordan turned the ball over with the Bulls attempting to tie the game.
And that was it, with the Bulls' late fade leaving the sellout crowd at the United Center stunned.
"I'm disappointed," Jordan said. "We were in control of the game and we went for the kill with three-pointers.
"My intention was to come back and win it all. It was my dream as well of the others on the team. We believed in ourselves; otherwise, we wouldn't have gone this far."
Perhaps the Bulls may have gone further had they had the services of Grant, who felt unwanted in Chicago and left bitterly at the end of last season. Grant's rebounding and scoring carried the Magic through the first five games of the series. His play gave the team confidence last night despite the fact that Grant's six points and six rebounds were well below his standards.
"I think Horace is the team MVP," O'Neal said. "He's the key to our winning. He was hitting big shots and getting key rebounds all series."
The Magic once again won behind a balanced attack in which four players scored 18 or more points. Scott and Anfernee Hardaway each scored 21 points, and Anderson had 18.
Anderson scored five points in the fourth quarter, but all were clutch. His three-pointer with 2:02 left after faking Toni Kukoc pulled the Magic within 102-99. And his jumper with 42 seconds left gave the Magic a 103-102 lead.
"I don't mind being the hero, I don't mind being the goat," Anderson said. "When I took the three, I got Kukoc off his feet and hit it. That was a big confidence boost. And when we took the lead, we weren't going to give it up."
Orlando was successful from the perimeter, hitting 12 of 24 three-point attempts. Scott, Anderson and Hardaway hit four apiece.
The Magic has come a long way since last season, when it reached the playoffs with great expectations only to be bounced in three games by the Pacers in the opening round. This year's team has had a taste of playoff success, and feels confident entering the next round.
"I told the people at the beginning of the year that I wanted to be playing all the way through," O'Neal said. "That's my mission this year. We're happy we won the first round, we're happy we won the second round.
"We set our goals high. Now that we've gotten to the Eastern Conference finals, we have to set them higher."
And now Jordan has to taste defeat. At times in the series he was spectacular. And at other times he showed the rust of his long layoff. Now he has the entire off-season to get ready for next season.
"I didn't have the legs I wanted to; I didn't feel well all day," said Jordan, who played with the flu. "But it's not an excuse.
"It [coming back] was a challenge and it was fun. I was disappointed I wasn't able to jell with the team as I did with the old team. This team had its own identity before I got here. Summer is the time to make adjustments."
And will he come back?
"I still have challenges ahead," Jordan said. "And I will be back unless they cut me."