Magic-Air debate is not worth arguing about


CHICAGO -- Can we safely take the, uh, air out of this Magic-Michael balloon now and come back to earth?

You've got the two greatest players maybe in the history of the game performing miracles on the same floor in the NBA Finals, and there are people who want to make the matchup into some kind of prizefight or -- God help us -- a debate.

Folks, this is not the McLaughlin Group, but, OK, we'll debate, if briefly.

You say: Who's better?

I say: Who cares?

And how do you keep score anyway?

Here's what we know. In Round 1 yesterday, the Lakers beat the Bulls, 93-91. They beat them on a surprise three-pointer by power forward Sam Perkins. They beat them when consecutive Jordan jump shots rimmed out. They beat them because, in Johnson's 43 minutes, the Lakers outscored the Bulls, 91-77 (for you non-math majors, that means the Bulls led, 14-2, with Magic on the bench).

It was heart-in-your-throat basketball all the way. Or does it get better than, with the Lakers leading by one and the scoreboard giving up precious second after second, to have Jordan with the ball and his sights on the basket? It's only the greatest single moment in sports.

"My heart stopped," Magic said. "I was dead for 30 seconds. Without a doubt. I was dead on my feet. I died."

So did the ball, as it turned out. There were maybe five seconds left. Jordan pumped from 18 over Perkins, who was running toward him. The ball hit the back of the rim, the front of the rim, and then Magic's fingers. He tipped the ball to Byron Scott, and there it went.

"That's scary," Magic said. "There's two guys who scare you like that. No. 1, there's Michael and then there's Larry [Bird]. Michael is the scariest. Anybody else, it's, 'Oh, we'll just play them straight up.' "

He's scary, and he's spectacular, and he's wonderful, and, of his last two shots (the first, a banker from 15 with 25 seconds left), either could have gone in, meaning the Bulls might have won.

So, Jordan had his usual great day, including a few monster dunks: 36 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds. No wonder they named a shoe after him. They could name a country after him.

But is he better than Magic?

Earvin Johnson is no stranger to hype. You don't get a nickname like Magic without some firsthand knowledge of what we'll call bigger-than-lifeness.

When this Magic-Michael business started, Magic knew just what to do with it.

"I'm not gonna get caught up in it," he said. "because he's gonna win. If I get caught up in it, that's the best thing that can happen to the Bulls. My job is to direct traffic. Michael's thing is to score points. I can't get no 36 points."

Well, he can, of course. But he doesn't have to. He scored 19 -- and get this, he got them taking five shots. (Also, 10 free throws.) He didn't have a basket in the first half. And he didn't mind, either, which is all you really need to know about Magic. He doesn't care about points. He cares that he made the pass when he got double-teamed that went to Perkins, who had been left open. Perkins hit the shot, and Magic, who got his 29th lifetime playoff triple double (19 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds), had done his job. He also did his job at the end of the third quarter, hitting consecutive three-pointers.

"It's about winning," said Magic, which you may have heard him say before.

Does that make him better?

Here's the truth about the Chicago Bulls: They have one great player and one very good player. Jordan scored 36, Scottie Pippen scored 19 and no one else scored more than six.

"I hope next game my supporting cast is going to hit more shots," Jordan said.

He actually called his teammates his supporting cast. But don't blame Jordan for that. He can read box scores. In the fourth quarter, he had to take over, and he did, scoring 13 points. In a 10-0 run to start the quarter, he scored six and set up another two.

All Jordan did wrong was to miss two shots at the end that even the screaming thousands at Chicago Stadium couldn't wish in.

"I had a wide-open shot," Jordan said of the last one. "It felt good. But they all feel good."

Magic watched. There was nothing else he could do.

"That's my job," he said, the Magic smile in place. "I watch everything."

And he sees all, as we know from every blind pass he's ever made. He saw Jordan's shot seem to hang on the rim forever.

Magic: "I was, 'Oh, no, no, no, no. All right.' "

The problem with the Bulls isn't that Jordan missed. It's that he had to take the shot. Who else, unless it was Scottie Pippen. The Bulls don't have enough people who can step up when it matters. That's why I like the Lakers in this series. They have more go-to guys, and, of course, they have Magic to go to them.

The rest of the stuff just doesn't matter.

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