CHICAGO -- If the drive toward a sixth NBA championship is going to be this tough for the Chicago Bulls, maybe it's time to break up the team.
Looking sloppy and just a bit tired of it all, the Bulls needed overtime to get past the New Jersey Nets, 96-93, in their opening game of the playoffs last night. The best-of-five series continues tomorrow afternoon.
"It could have gone either way," said Michael Jordan, who scored "We were lucky that we made the plays at the end."
The Nets, who waited until the last day of the season to qualify for the playoffs with a 43-39 record, had plenty going against them.
They had rookie forward Keith Van Horn for only 16 minutes because of intestinal flu. They had point guard Sam Cassell, hampered by a groin pull, for just 17 minutes, the injury leading him to commit five quick fouls.
But they also had Jayson Williams, who pulled down 21 rebounds, and a bullish Chris Gatling, who scooted around the court for 24 points.
That almost was enough to offset the Bulls on a night on which Dennis Rodman couldn't carry the rebounding load, and Jordan was less than his usual stellar self.
Rodman finished with just eight rebounds. Jordan, the game's high scorer with 39 points, hit just 11 of 27 shots from the field. He did make 17 free throws, but he missed six, including crucial ones at the end of both regulation and overtime.
"We've got some sad people in our locker room," Nets coach John Calipari said. "I had to pick up some people's heads and tell them it's going to be all right."
The Nets may never have a better chance to knock off Chicago in this short series. They romped to a 12-3 lead in the opening quarter before falling behind by 52-48 at halftime.
New Jersey appeared to be out of the game by the end of the third quarter, when the Bulls extended their lead to double figures. But early in the fourth period, led by Gatling and Williams, the Nets went on a 14-2 run to tie it at 80. An uneasy LTC rustle went through the United Center as the game went hurtling toward the finish.
In the final minutes of regulation, that time usually given over to heroics by Jordan, the Bulls didn't get the job done.
Jordan hit one of his typical fadeaway jumpers from the baseline to give the Bulls an 86-83 lead with just over two minutes left, but they couldn't pull away.
New Jersey 27 21 14 27 4 -- 93
Chicago 31 21 20 17 7 -- 96
Pub Date: 4/25/98