Bulls-Lakers opener, as expected, is classic


CHICAGO -- The only disappointment of the day was that Scottie Pippen missed a halfcourt shot as time ran out. That would have been a perfect ending to a perfectly contested game. Forget loyalties. Forget sides. Forget that the vast majority of Chicago prognosticators made complete idiots of themselves yesterday. Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals was exactly what it was supposed to be. Great basketball. Classic basketball. Perfect entertainment.

"This," Magic Johnson said, "is the way basketball is supposed to be played."

In the end, it was a 93-91 victory for the Los Angeles Lakers, which came as a complete shock in Chicago, where it was popular to predict the Chicago Bulls would win the championship in five games.

Admittedly, it's difficult to be objective when you watch Michael Jordan play 82 games a season, but that Johnson kid who plays on the West Coast is a pretty good player, too. Anyone even

remotely objective would figure the series was headed for seven games.

The Magic vs. Michael show matched the pre-series buildup, but, today, that is not news to any basketball fan who certainly was at least watching on television. You don't get events like Game 1 on free TV anymore. Boxing matches of similar magnitude go for $35 on cable. Ringside seats would be $1,000. Bulls fans got a bargain at only $275 for courtside seats.

The afternoon ended with Johnson throwing the final punch that gave the Lakers a decision on points. Yes, Sam Perkins made a dramatic three-point shot with 14 seconds left. But the basketball play that preceded the shot could have been made by only one man.

The Lakers were trailing by two when they inbounded the ball at halfcourt. Terry Teagle passed to Byron Scott, who quickly passed to Magic. Johnson did what he does best. He waited. He always waits. He lets the game come to him. For the majority of the afternoon, the Bulls had double-teamed him. He knew they would again. And so he waited.

Horace Grant left Perkins, and sprinted toward Johnson, who was being guarded by Jordan. Johnson paused briefly, waited until Grant arrived, then rifled a bullet pass to Perkins, who calmly sank the three-pointer.

Johnson made it look easy -- so easy that it is easy to overlook what a difficult play it was to make. He had to know where everyone was on the court, he had to identify the double-team and then he had to whip the ball 30 feet across the court to the open man.

"His man came off him, so I got it to him," Johnson said, matter-of-factly. "If that hadn't been there, somebody else would have been open."

It was easy. For Magic.

The Bulls still had two chances to win, but on the first play, the Lakers' defense did an outstanding job of shutting off Jordan, who nearly threw a pass away. The ball went out of bounds, and the Bulls got a second chance.

Perkins was supposed to guard Jordan on the second play, but he fell down and Jordan was left with an open 18-footer. It looked perfect. All net. The Bulls seemed certain to win by one.

But, surprisingly, the shot rattled inside the rim, and went out.

"There's only two people you're scared of in that situation," Johnson said. "One is Michael, and two is Larry [Bird]. But Michael is the scariest."

It was not until that point that anyone could say Jordan was not perfect. He finished with 36 points and also had 12 assists, eight rebounds and three steals.

Johnson wasn't perfect, either. During the game, he missed one field goal. And one free throw. He didn't attempt his first shot until 1:28 was left in the first quarter. That was the only field goal he attempted in the first half. He did not make his first field goal until 6:11 was left in the third quarter.

He ended the game with 19 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds -- the 29th triple-double of his career. He played a classic Magic Johnson game -- the dominating director.

And Jordan played a classic Michael Jordan game -- the dominating producer.

Which was better? The Lakers won, so Johnson has the advantage. Realistically, however, they were even, which is surprising only to those who have attempted to minimize Magic's ability compared to Jordan's simply because Magic does not score a lot of points.

"We've got the No. 1 general in the U.S.," said the Lakers' Mychal Thompson, who quickly amended his statement. "Magic and [Gen. Norman] Schwarzkopf -- they are the two. You can't count [President] Bush. What has he done? It's Magic and Norman."

Perhaps the military analogy was appropriate yesterday because Jordan won the statistical battle, but Magic won the war.

The real winners, however, were those who watched the game, whether it was live or on TV. Can it get any better? We can only hope. In a perfect basketball world, this series will last seven games.

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