Pippen, not Jordan, may be key to Bulls' playoff hopes this year


DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Media representatives swarmed around Michael Jordan Thursday as soon as the Chicago Bulls finished up practice at the Multiplex in this suburban community.

And that was fine with Scottie Pippen.

Pippen has gone out of his way to maintain a low profile since he squawked about his $765,000 salary two months ago and was outspoken in his attempt to renegotiate the final two years of his contract.

Pippen even boycotted practice one day in March and asked to be traded as a personal protest against Bulls management.

But now that Chicago general manager Jerry Krause has failed in attempts to lure Yugoslavian superstar Toni Kukoc to the States, the Bulls have no choice but to open the vault door for the fourth-year forward Krause discovered at tiny Central Arkansas.

Attorneys for Pippen reportedly are close to completing a multiyear deal that would pay him an average salary of $3.5 million.

Pippen will be worth every cent if he comes up big in the Bulls' Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Sixers that got under way yesterday in Chicago Stadium.

The Sixers' first priority, of course, will be to contain the magnificent Jordan, who personally destroyed them in a five-game semifinal series last season when he averaged a whopping 43 points.

If the Sixers decide to double team Jordan, as they have all season, that could leave Pippen, a slashing scorer, isolated on the weak side with Charles Barkley when the Bulls go to their triangle offense.

"Scottie is not as big or strong as Barkley, but he's had some success against him in the past by being elusive and sniping at the ball and getting out on the fastbreak," Chicago coach Phil Jackson said.

"I feel like I can attack him," Pippen said. "That's going to be a major factor, that I attack him and make him work on defense.

"I don't feel he can guard me in an open-court game. I feel he can do a lot better job in a halfcourt game because he can follow me to his help."

Pippen, who averaged 22.3 points against the Sixers in last year's postseason, might be the second option in the Bulls' complex offense, but he is no longer just the beneficiary of playing with Jordan.

"It didn't used to cost so much to double up on Jordan," Detroit coach Chuck Daly said. "Now, Pippen has stepped forward and become a threat."

Pippen has become his own man, during this the best season of a young career, averaging 17.8 points on 52 percent shooting, 7.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.3 steals.

By comparison, Boston's Larry Bird was the only forward in the league to average more points, rebounds and assists than Pippen.

"He's a good all-around player," Pippen said. "He's great as far as rebounding and scoring. But defensively, he's not a great player. It's kind of tough finding those players who have all the tools."

Got anyone in mind, Scottie?

"I think I can do a lot of things," Pippen said. "My ability allows me to be able to handle the ball, rebound, defend and score.

"I've got all the tools."

And they were in full display Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, when the Bulls completed a three-game sweep of the Knicks. Pippen had 21 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks in 42 minutes.

"Playing with a guy like Michael, you have to take a lot of pride in what you're doing," Pippen said. 'You don't want to fall too far behind. Even though you know you have to take a back seat to him, you always want to be a competitive player."

Pippen was competitive enough last season to make the All-Star roster. This season, he was snubbed, leading to speculation that some coaches still were disturbed by the disappearing act he pulled last year in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals

against Detroit.

Pippen was warming up at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., when suddenly, he developed a migraine headache.

"I felt like somebody had taken an ice pick to my skull," he said. "It grabbed me and wouldn't let go."

Pippen played 42 minutes that afternoon. He was 1-for-10 from the field and scored just two points as the Pistons won, 93-74.

It was not the first time Pippen had come up lame in a big game.

The year before, in the sixth game and final of the Eastern finals, he was cracked on the head by Detroit's Bill Laimbeer. Pippen left the game with a mild concussion and did not return.

"It's something the fans will never let die," he said.

When the Bulls traveled to Auburn Hills to play the Pistons in late December, a black-and-white photograph of Pippen applying an ice pack to his head was blown up and posted in the press room.

About the only way for Pippen to erase those haunting memories is to help the Bulls reach the championship series. And even though the Bulls won 61 games this year, the road to the championship round looks like it might be rocky.

The Sixers already have beaten the Bulls twice in Chicago Stadium and there is concern by the Bulls that this series might be an ugly, physical one before it's over.

"I have no doubt they will try to intimidate us," Pippen said. "Give us that hard foul on the way to the basket, as if to say, 'Don't come in the lane again.'

"But we're not going to let that bother us."

What might emerge as a real concern, however, is the presence of Barkley, who has caused the Bulls problems all season and is coming into this series rested, after missing close to three weeks with a knee injury.

"We've tried everybody on Barkley," Jackson said. "We haven't had much success. Given the matchups they've thrown on us, Scottie is going to be guarding Barkley at the start of the game."

Jackson can go to Cliff Levingston for emergency relief. But mostly, he will have to rely on the double team.

"You can double him in the lane," Pippen cautioned, "but you can't double him on the offensive boards."

Nonetheless, Pippen sounds ready for the challenge.

"I've been looking forward to this playoff since the end of last season," he said. "I want to have the opportunity to play in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals again. I want to advance to the championship round. It means a lot for me to get there, because I feel I owe that to my teammates and my coaches.

"I really haven't performed in the big games. This is the year I want to take care of that."

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