Jordan Pulls Big Number On Defense

April 28, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

CHICAGO -- Michael Jordan had just split two defenders, floated toward the baseline and drained an impossible 10-footer over the outstretched arms of Juwan Howard.

The crowd erupted, the Bullets called timeout, and referee Hugh Evans strolled to the other end of the court, rolling his eyes, shaking his head, shuddering.

Yes, shuddering.

It was one of those nights at the United Center, one of those nights you'll remember forever, one of those nights Jordan was so incredibly spectacular, it seemed like he was playing 1-on-5.

"I got into that zone," Jordan said. "I couldn't get out."

He finished with 55 points, including 20 of the Bulls' 23 in the fourth quarter, when the outcome was still in doubt. The Bullets were downright gallant, even brilliant. And they still lost Game 2 of this series, 109-104.

Adjustments, someone wanted to know about the adjustments that Bullets coach Bernie Bickerstaff would make for Game 3 -- as if you could adjust to a head-on collision with a speeding locomotive.

"You set up your Hail Marys, whatever you believe in," Bickerstaff said. "We said all along, if he's going to get it done, make him be great. And damn if he wasn't."

The Bullets' Calbert Cheaney fought through picks, played physical defense, kept a hand in Jordan's face. He recovered from fakes, forced Jordan to the perimeter, attacked him on offense.

And Jordan still got 55.

"Down the stretch, Calbert went after Michael offensively," Bickerstaff said. "Michael was tired. He had been chasing [on defense]. That's what's so phenomenal about the thing."

It was the eighth time Jordan scored 50 or more points in a playoff game -- and the first since he returned to the NBA in March 1994. The 55 points matched the third-highest playoff total of his career.

Of course, Jordan didn't just score. He screamed at his teammates at halftime, with the Bulls trailing 65-58. He laid back at the start of the third quarter, expecting them to contribute. Then he got tired of waiting, and took over.

He scored nine points during the Bulls' 17-2 run in the third quarter, the one that should have put the Bullets away. Then he scored 14 straight to open the fourth quarter, his barrage interrupted only by Scottie Pippen's three-pointer.

"Steve [Kerr] came to me in the third or fourth quarter and said, `[Rod] Strickland is getting a little tired. I might be open,' " Jordan said. "I couldn't focus. I didn't think about it.

"When Scottie hit his three, that was like a relief. I could see the cavalry coming. I had been fighting so long."

The cavalry? What cavalry?

Jordan scored the Bulls' final six points.

"I apologized to Tex after the game -- `Sorry about the triangle. I forgot about the triangle,' " Jordan said, referring to assistant coach Tex Winter, the mastermind behind the Bulls' famed triangle offense.

Cheaney was the victim most of the night, but when Jordan is hitting that turnaround fadeaway, his opponent ceases to matter. Poor Cheaney not only played terrific defense, but also led the Bullets with 26 points.

He got lit up for 55.

And he was a hero.

"They were trying to console Calbert," Bickerstaff said of the Bullets' players. "Calbert played a great game. He just met Mr. Jordan."

A reporter asked Cheaney if it was a lonely feeling to be isolated against Jordan. Cheaney, soft-spoken and polite, snapped, "What do you think? What do you think?

"It's not a lonely feeling," Cheaney said. "You've just got to go out, grit your teeth, keep playing hard."

And beg Jordan to stop.

"A couple of times he joked with me -- he said, `Are you tired yet?' " Jordan recalled. "I wasn't tired. We hadn't won the game yet."

Bickerstaff tried defensive specialist Jaren Jackson on Jordan in the fourth quarter, but that, too, was a mismatch. Another Bullet, Tim Legler, recalled his hand landing right on top of Jordan's after one shot.

It went in, anyway.

"He's jumping sideways, holding the ball until the last second until he hits the ground," Legler said. "You can't defend that."

Did Cheaney need more help?

"Unless I'm missing something, I thought we had some help," Bickerstaff said. "I saw three or four guys going after him, especially when he went down the lane."

Actually, Bickerstaff said he has it all figured out now: The way to stop Jordan is to keep Gheorghe Muresan on the court.

Sound ridiculous? Well, Bickerstaff reasoned that when the Bulls attacked Muresan with Jason Caffey, it kept the ball out of Jordan's hands. Alas, Muresan was so ineffective, he played only 13 minutes.

"We did everything conceivable that we could do to try and contain Michael," Bickerstaff said. "He basically put them on his shoulders. He showed why he's probably the greatest basketball player playing now. And he needed all of it."

It's the story of Jordan's career.

Needed it. Got it.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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