Pacers could prove worthy foe for Bulls Jordan-Miller matchup an intriguing sidelight in Eastern showdown

May 17, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

In the opening two rounds of the playoffs, the Chicago Bulls played just good enough to win. And that, frankly, disturbs Bulls guard Michael Jordan.

"That's not going to carry us far into the next round," Jordan said. "As you get deeper into the playoffs, that's a dangerous way to approach teams. We have got play to our level and, so far, we haven't been able to do that."

And the defending NBA champion Bulls know that they will have to play at a higher level starting this afternoon, when they open the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals series against the Indiana Pacers. Chicago (62-20) and Indiana (58-24) provide the expected meeting between the Eastern Conference's top two teams.

"A great team. You could have predicted this," Bulls guard Steve Kerr said. "We knew they would be there, they knew we would be there. Now it's time to play."

Aside from the obvious factor of having Jordan, the only real noticeable edge that the Bulls have is the home-court advantage. Over the course of the season the teams played relatively even: They split four regular-season games with Chicago averaging 96.7 points to Indiana's 96.0 points.

And while Indiana has never reached an NBA Finals, the Pacers do have one intangible that should help: veteran experience. Four of the five starters have at least 10 years of NBA experience. That group blossomed under first-year coach Larry Bird, who, with his postseason success as a player, has his team believing they can upset the defending champions.

"Chicago is one of the best teams in the world," Bird said. "It will be tough to beat them four games, but we have some guys who really believe in themselves. We will battle and play hard and see what happens."

The biggest edge the Pacers have in individual matchups is at center, where 7-foot-4 Rik Smits has a height advantage over Chicago's 7-2 center, Luc Longley. Smits finished strong in the semifinal series against New York, scoring almost at will over Patrick Ewing in the final two games. That Longley missed 24 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs because of injuries -- and has yet to reach 100 percent -- might be a factor.

"I see trouble," Longley said. "They have a good interior team, a strong perimeter game, they're smart and a veteran team."

But what most concerns Chicago is the Indiana bench, where Jalen Rose, Travis Best, Antonio Davis and Derrick McKey all play a major role. Depending on how its bench (led by Toni Kukoc) responds, the Chicago starters might be forced to play a lot of minutes.

"The biggest question is whether we can match their bench strength," Scottie Pippen said.

And another big question is how Chicago plans to defend Indiana. The greatly anticipated matchup is at shooting guard, where Jordan will go against Reggie Miller. The question is whether Jordan can expend a lot of energy chasing Miller through numerous Indiana picks and still be effective offensively. What Chicago can do is put Pippen on Miller, with Jordan defending the less mobile Chris Mullin.

Regardless of how the Bulls counter, the Pacers are ready. And confident.

"[The Bulls] are the ultimate challenge," Miller said. "They have what we want. To get a championship, you have to go through Chicago. I think we can adapt to any kind of style... I like our chances."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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