It's time to push Bulls to the limit

May 29, 1998|By John Eisenberg

The NBA Eastern Conference finals resume tonight with Game 6 between the Bulls and Pacers, and, at the risk of offending the Michael Jordan Nation, it would be nice to see the Pacers win at least one more game.

Not because it would be fun to watch NBC and the league gag on the idea of a Utah-Indiana final, although, of course, it would be fun to watch them gag on that.

And not because of any ill will toward the Bulls, who continue to amaze. (Notice what happened to the Pacers in Game 5 after they had won two in a row and annoyed Jordan. They found themselves down by 25 at the half. Hello.)

The real reason to root for the Pacers -- for tonight at least -- is that it's long past time someone pushed the Bulls to their limit.

Forced them to sweat and press and think about the consequences of missing a shot in a game that could mark the end of their season.

If the Pacers can't do it -- and they probably can't, given the way they were wadded up and tossed in Game 5 -- let's hope Utah can in the Finals.

Why? Because it would be interesting to see the Bulls have to try to define their greatness in a new way.

That's all that's left, isn't it, after five titles in seven years?

As remarkable as that run has been, the Bulls seldom have been behind or in deep trouble or forced to respond to a frightful challenge. They haven't had to confront their on-court mortality.

Let's see it.

Knowing Jordan, he'd respond with a performance for the ages. A 55-pointer. A last-second shot. Something brilliant. Worth taping. Wonderful to see. Fantastic.

But let's see it.

Please, let's see Jordan and the Bulls not just stroll to another title.

Incredibly, they have played only one Game 7 during their long run of championships, a statistic that is embarrassing to the league and potentially hurtful to the Bulls' standing among the greatest teams ever.

Bill Russell's Celtics had Wilt Chamberlain's 76ers and Jerry West's Lakers to challenge them, push them and ultimately define their greatness. Magic Johnson's Lakers and Larry Bird's Celtics had each other.

The Bulls? They haven't had to beat any truly great teams.

Their five Finals victories have come against five different teams, all of which failed to defend their Western Conference title the next year.

The Bulls' five Eastern Conference final victories also came against five different teams, none of which made it back to the league's final four the next year.

Indiana would be the sixth different team the Bulls have beaten to win the East.

What does it all mean? That no team has sustained a lengthy challenge to the Bulls' supremacy. Few have even scared them more than marginally.

The Bulls' only Game 7 in their championship years was against the Knicks in the 1992 Eastern Conference semifinals. They won by 29 points at home. That was six years ago.

Since then, the Bulls, with Jordan at full strength, have won 16 straight series without once playing a "win or else" game in which a loss meant their elimination. (That's excluding the '94 playoffs, when Jordan was "retired," and the '95 playoffs, when he was just coming back and plainly rusty.)

In fact, the Bulls have trailed in only three of 22 series in their championship years -- and never for long.

It's not a history of great escapes and stirring comebacks. It's a history of strong front-running, a skill in itself that the Bulls seemingly have perfected.

They can't control the quality of their opposition, of course. All they can do is play who shows up. It's not their fault no other team has sustained itself as a worthy contender.

But they're a lesser champion for it, as much as it's not their fault.

The best champions are those that beat other champions. The Bulls have beaten a lot of tough teams, but none that were a dead-even match.

The only opponents that really pushed them were the Knicks of the early '90s, who took them to a Game 7 in one season and won the first two games of a series in another before losing four in a row.

Otherwise, a lot of teams have managed only to stare-off evenly with the Bulls in the early going in a series before blinking hard, as the Pacers did in Game 5.

Wouldn't it be nice to see the Bulls have to try to win in a different way? Come back from the brink of defeat? Perform under "win or else" pressure?

That's when champions play their best. Give their most memorable performances.

For the sake of history, let's see it.

Maybe the Jazz is the team to do it, with its tough, no-nonsense approach and the home-court advantage in the Finals.

Maybe the Jazz, having played in the Finals a year ago, is the one to challenge the Bulls as no team has challenged them before. Not necessarily beat them, mind you. Just push them. Scare them. And, who knows, maybe beat them, too.

Either way, let's see it.

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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