In a city that fully believes a championship parade permit is nothing more than paperwork with a date to be filled in, the Chicago Bulls took a loud, convincing step toward the NBA finals tonight.
They overcame an 18-point second-half deficit to defeat Orlando, 93-88, and take a 2-0 lead in the four-of-seven-game Eastern Conference finals. With a pressing defensive effort that was disciplined and ferocious all at once, the Bulls added one more remarkable achievement to a record-breaking season. In tonight's magic act, the Bulls made a dominant player disappear.
Shaquille O'Neal was held to 10 points and 5 rebounds in the second half, including a meaningless dunk with 5 seconds to play, after powering his way to 26 points and 11 rebounds before halftime. Surprised by Chicago double-teams in the second half, and handicapped by a backcourt that was prevented from getting him the ball nearly enough down the stretch, O'Neal produced only three shots in the fourth quarter. He made all three, but he could not make enough.
Michael Jordan scored 35 points (on 9-for-21 shooting, along with 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals and a block), 25 in the second half, after a 3-for-10 first-half effort that made his pre-game acceptance of the league's most valuable player award seem like a cruel joke. But Jordan's defensive play was just as decisive on a night when he was forced to deal with cramps in the final minutes. "It's a crucial time of the game," Jordan said. "What am I supposed to do? Sit down?"
Scottie Pippen scored 17 points (7-for-19) with 10 rebounds and 9 assists, and Dennis Rodman -- the one option often left free in Orlando's defensive approach -- added 15 points with 12 rebounds. By the end, the Bulls handed Orlando a defeat that may be even more demoralizing than the 38-point wipeout in Game 1. "I think we broke their hearts a little bit," said Bill Wennington, the backup Bull center.
Just when the Magic seemed capable of overcoming the loss of Horace Grant with his injured left elbow, the Bulls snatched away a game that created a difficult uphill climb for Orlando. In the 243 previous seven-game series in NBA history, only seven teams have won after losing the first two.
"We found a weakness," Jordan remembered, "and we said, 'Let's attack this weakness. Let's keep the pressure on until they can prove that they can stop, change or they can alter,' and they never did."
As the Magic heads back to Orlando Arena for Game 3 on Saturday, with the memory of six fourth-quarter turnovers here tonight, the task will be to find a reason to believe that a second consecutive Eastern championship is still somewhere within their reach. The offensive breakdown tonight went far beyond the shooting problems that led to the loss in Game 1. This time, particularly with the game on the line in the final minutes, the Magic was often incapable of even creating a shot.
The four Magic leaders in assists this season -- Anfernee Hardaway, Brian Shaw, Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson -- produced a total of two assists in the second half. "We just couldn't get into any kind of offense," Hardaway said, "and they came back and played a great game. There at the end when they were making their run, they were putting pressure on the ball and fronting Shaquille. It just so happened we couldn't get the ball in at that time."
It just so happened that the Magic, which had been led by O'Neal's power and mobility throughout an impressive first half, did not appear anywhere close to a team capable of reaching the finals again. "They were all over the place," said Jon Koncak, who started in place of Grant. "We have some of the best guards in the game, but we played into their hands. We never got the ball out of the double-team. The forwards had the ball too much. We have very capable guys, but when they turned it up, we could not recover."