Upcoming 'must game' is abrupt turn off smooth road for Bulls


CHICAGO -- Phil Jackson had to think. He wrinkled his forehead and looked to the ceiling at Chicago Stadium for guidance.

When was the last time the Chicago Bulls played as crucial a game as the one that faces them tomorrow?

Let's see. Hmmm.

The Bulls' coach started to say something, then thought a little more.

"Well, we had a couple of games with Detroit during the regular season that we felt were important for establishing ourselves in the division," Jackson said, but that answer didn't even satisfy him and he thought some more.

The Chicago Bulls wouldn't be eliminated from the NBA Finals if they lost another game here tomorrow and fell behind, 2-0, to the Los Angeles Lakers in the best-of-seven series. But they might as well be.

Home court is the hinge upon which championship teams must swing. Sunday's 93-91 loss to the Lakers in the opener was a jarring bit of reality for a club that has not had to face much of it this season. The Bulls had won 10 straight at home, including three at the end of the regular season.

They go into the next game knowing a loss would be devastating to their title hopes. Lose tomorrow and the Bulls must win two of three at Los Angeles just to survive. It's not a pretty proposition.

"Well," Jackson said, trying once again to conjure up a game in which the Bulls have experienced this sort of pressure, "against Philly, we lost the third game and then came back and played a really good game on Mother's Day."

Oooh, and the consequences of a loss would have been a 2-2 series tie with two more home games left. Not exactly tied to the railroad tracks with the Cannonball bearing down.

"We haven't played a game like this this year," Bulls forward Horace Grant said. He didn't even have to think about it. "The last one would have been Game 7 against Detroit last year in the conference finals. That makes it tough because we definitely need this one."

The Bulls have cavorted through this season without upheaval, without injury, and without being seriously tested. That charmed existence is over.

Are the Bulls at a disadvantage because their ascendancy has been gained without scars?

"Look, they're a very tough and very experienced team," said Los Angeles coach Mike Dunleavy. "I don't buy all that about having to be in the finals once before you can win it. They've been on a roll and they're playing great basketball. They beat Detroit the way they did because they've got experience in this kind of game."

But there are no games like the ones in the championship round. And perhaps no championship round games, in terms of pressure per square inch, like ones at home when the other team could turn your own crowd against you. There were murmurs of discontent in the usually boosterish Stadium on Sunday. As Scottie Pippen was clanging through a 2-for-8 third period and the Lakers were building a seven-point lead, you could almost feel the chill go through the building. Hey, they're blowing this thing.

"We know we can't go to L.A. down 2-0," reserve center Will Perdue said. "That's a fact. I don't know if we've had a game like this all year. It's a very big deal and you don't know how you'll react. You hope to react positively."

The Bulls' last brush with do-or-die, that seventh game against Detroit last year, doesn't bring much comfort in the recollection. Chicago lost, 93-74, in an awful showing.

fact, the last time Chicago played a game that meant survival and won was on May 7, 1989, when Michael Jordan put up a twisting, buzzer-beating shot to edge Cleveland in a fifth and deciding game. That was back when it was still a big deal for the Bulls to win a first-round series.

"I guess we haven't had that much pressure up until now," Pippen said. "We're used to things going our way, so we don't try too hard."

That's one way to look at it.

Another is that the Bulls have been able to avoid dark alleys like this because they've played so well.

"One game doesn't make a series. Things can turn around quickly," said Jordan, who would have been answering very different questions had he made either of two final-minute jump shots in the opening game. "Every team has ups and downs. The thing is to have more ups than downs."

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