Smothering Bulls defense makes magic series vanish


INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- So much for the Magic-Michael Show. One of the most exciting and glamorous NBA Finals in recent years came to a very boring end last night when the Chicago Bulls won their third consecutive game, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers, 97-82.

The Bulls now are officially within one game of the title, which they can win Wednesday night in Game 5 at the Forum. In fact, only an unlikely miss of an open shot by Michael Jordan in Game 1 prevented them from a sweep.

One thing is certain: The way the Bulls are playing, there is no way the Lakers can win three consecutive games, even if they were healthy. James Worthy (sore ankle) and Byron Scott (hyperextended shoulder) may miss Wednesday's game. That should move up the timetable for the inevitable.

The Bulls' domination of the series is indeed a surprising turn of events. The Bulls were obviously good. They won 61 regular-season games and 11 of 12 playoff games entering the Finals. But unless you dress regularly in red and black, which is to say you are a biased Bulls fan, there was no reason to believe the Lakers would fall apart so completely.

"No one could ever think that you could dominate a team of the Lakers' stature and the legacy they carry," Jordan said. "But we've been playing well every game. We put ourselves in the [position] to win. But I don't think it's something where we thought we'd be up 3-1."

That they are is something they can rightfully credit to themselves. The Lakers had a horrible day shooting yesterday (37 percent). They missed their fair share of easy shots.

"We can't generate anything," Magic Johnson said. "But you have to give them credit. It's one thing to say, 'We're not doing it,' but it's another thing to get beat. And they're beating us."

The Bulls are doing it with a smothering defense. Talk all you want about the Bulls' exciting offense, but their defense has befuddled the Lakers.

And so it has ended -- prematurely for the purist. Wouldn't it have been wonderful to watch a seventh game in rollicking Chicago Stadium? That would have been an appropriate way for the Magic-Michael Show to end. Instead, the show has been mostly Michael's. Magic has played well, but Michael has dominated. And yesterday, besides scoring 28 points, he also was able to out-Magic Magic, getting 13 assists to Magic's 11. But he's done that throughout the series. In the four games, Jordan has 47 assists and Magic has 42.

"Michael has been outstanding," Magic said. "His game has really risen."

Jordan has scored, rebounded and made his teammates better. He also has made the opposition worse. Despite a sore toe, which he sprained in Game 3, Jordan continued dominating the Lakers' punch-drunk shooting guards. Scott and Terry Teagle combined to make Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy's job very difficult. Scott continued shooting so poorly that his only useful offensive purpose was to provide the Lakers with offensive rebounding opportunities. During the Finals, the list of certainties in life has expanded by one: death, taxes and a Byron Scott missed jumper.

It would not be a reach to say the mismatch at shooting guard has been the catalyst in the Bulls' surging confidence. Jordan's teammates knew he was good, but good enough to completely destroy the confidence of two other players, and cripple a veteran team?

But perhaps the Bulls' experience has been underrated. While it is true they are making their first appearance in the Finals, they have been in three consecutive Eastern Conference finals. The first two times, they lost to the Pistons, who went on to win the championship. Apparently, the Bulls learned a lot about playing in pressurized situations.

Whatever it was, they showed no lack of poise when they came back from a 13-point third-quarter deficit to win Game 3. And in Game 4, they clearly were the more confident team. The Lakers recognize that look. They've had it often themselves. Now, however, they look lost. And a lost team doesn't win championships.

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