Jordan's brave talk masks Bulls' plight Even if it ousts Pacers, Chicago seems ill-equipped to maintain grip on title

May 31, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- It was a guarantee -- "We're going to win Game 7" -- that, coming from Michael Jordan, rang surprisingly hollow. Maybe it was because Jordan has rarely faced an elimination game. So Jordan was questioned further, asked to explain whether his words were an actual prediction, or an inconsequential utterance.

Mike, was that a promise?

"I never make promises," Jordan said. "I don't make promises, even to my wife."

Maybe Jordan knows. Knows that, despite whatever happens tonight here at the United Center in Game 7 of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals, the dynasty -- and his career -- is probably over. Knows that, even if the Bulls get by the Pacers and advance to the NBA Finals, the Utah Jazz awaits to claim the title. Knows that the Bulls, in losing three of the series' past four games, have looked vulnerable on the court, as well as off it, with their post-game complaints.

After practice yesterday, Jordan, who scored 35 points in the 92-89 loss to the Pacers on Friday night, seemed more sure of himself. Again he expressed confidence -- without making a promise -- that Chicago would win tonight and advance. The home team has won every game in this series.

"I'm very confident," Jordan said. "When we've needed a win, we've come out and showed we can conquer the situation, and I don't have any doubt about this one. It's a belief in my ability, and a belief in my team's ability."

Despite the last-second stumble and two missed fourth-quarter jumpers on Friday, Jordan's ability can't be questioned. During the series, he has averaged 32.2 points and shot 48.5 percent.

However, the confidence of many in the team's ability surely has been shaken by its effort in this series.

Scottie Pippen missed two big free throws in the final seconds of the Game 4 loss and is shooting 40.4 percent from the field in the series. The Chicago front line of Luc Longley, Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc is being dominated by the likes of Rik Smits, Dale Davis and Antonio Davis. On Friday, Smits and Dale Davis combined to hit 18 of 21 shots. Smits made 11 of 12 on the way to scoring 25 points, and Dale Davis hit seven of nine, scoring a career playoff high 19 points.

"Dale Davis played off the charts," said Reggie Miller, who had only eight points, missing 11 of 13 shots. "He was really a thorn in the Bulls' side."

Many of Dale Davis' high-percentage shots came while going right at Kukoc or Rodman, who, despite averaging 10.5 rebounds in the series, has been a non-factor.

"Dale Davis really hurt us," Jordan said. "You have to give him his credit."

What has been amazing for the Pacers is that they have evened this series at three despite not getting a complete game from Miller, who is shooting 39.4 percent. The Indiana shooting guard was the hero in Game 4 but played poorly Friday, at times forcing shots.

For several days Miller complained about his ankle that was sprained in Game 3, saying that he shouldn't even be playing. Indiana coach Larry Bird grew tired of such talk, finally telling Miller privately that if he's hurting that much that he wouldn't play him. Miller's complaints were nipped in the bud.

Friday's win improved the Pacers' home playoff record to 8-0; they're the only team to go unbeaten at home this postseason.

Despite that, the Pacers still need to win one more game to reach the NBA Finals for the first time, and they need to win that game at the United Center, where Chicago has lost just once this postseason.

The Pacers have lost twice in the past in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, but they appear confident going into tonight.

"This is fantastic," Miller said. "We've got one game against the best team to see who goes to the Finals."

Added Dale Davis: "We've been go the [Eastern Conference] finals two or three times. This time, it should be ours."

It used to be that teams wouldn't dare utter such words, for fear Jordan would come out the next day and go on a scoring binge.

But this year is different. Miller dares to tell the Bulls to stop whining. Dale Davis confidently says tonight's Game 7 "should be ours." Bird, a nemesis of Jordan's as a player and trying to continue that as a coach, tells everyone that his team is good enough to win a championship now -- which means getting past the Bulls.

Maybe Jordan has one more double-nickel in his bag of tricks. And maybe his will is strong enough to carry the Bulls to their sixth title of the 1990s.

Tonight's make-or-break test could be Jordan's last game -- if the Bulls lose and if he retires.

"That well could fall into play," Jordan said of possible retirement. "And that's certainly a thought."

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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