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Movies keep Bulls gung-ho on defense Lakers' offense is suddenly AWOL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The Chicago Bulls are in a darkened room watching game tapes of their NBA Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers. Suddenly, all the players disappear from the screen, and they are replaced by an outbreak of sniper fire in a steaming jungle in Vietnam.

It's a scene from "Full Metal Jacket," a gimmick assistant coach John Bach, a former Navy combat officer, uses to keep the Bulls focused and mean.

Another time, he might insert a clip from "An Officer and a Gentleman" or "Letters From Vietnam," movies that Bach says help turn his "hungry Dobermans" into snarling, attacking defenders.

The unusual psychological ploys practiced by Bach and head coach Phil Jackson to incite the team defense may be a primary reason the Bulls are a victory away from clinching the first title in the team's 25-year history. The celebration could take place at The Forum tomorrow night.

The swarming Bulls defense has limited the Lakers to an average of 89.2 points in the first four games, including 82 Sunday, their lowest total in the finals since the 24-second clock began in the 1954-55 season.

"In our fondest hopes, we didn't think we could hold any playoff team, especially the Lakers, to 82 points," said Bach. "That's an almost unattainable goal. But it's a real tribute to Phil Jackson. He put in the trapping defense, and the team believes in it. Now, you're seeing the results."

The result is that the Lakers, with starters James Worthy (ankle) and Byron Scott (shoulder) questionable, appear in full retreat. They have been unable to solve the Bulls' puzzling traps and are also minus the resilient legs and youth to beat the Bulls in a transition game.

Once known for their racehorse style, the Lakers did not get a fast-break basket in Game 4.

"It's scary," said Magic Johnson, the Lakers floor leader. "They've kept the ball out of my hands better than anyone has before. I never dreamed this could happen. We can't make anything. We can't generate anything. Nothing is working."

Despite having Michael Jordan, the league's most explosive scorer, as the focal point of his offense, Jackson built his team's future around a suffocating defense.

"Defense is the most important element in winning a championship," said Jackson, who became the Bulls head coach in 1989, replacing Doug Collins. "I learned that philosophy from my old coach, Red Holzman, when I was playing with the Knicks in the '70s.

"He convinced me that the easiest way to get a team to play together is on the defensive end. You don't have to share a basketball there. They can share a defensive philosophy. They can learn to help each other out, and this team is doing the job."

Jackson said he borrowed his trapping defense from former Knicks coaches Hubie Brown and Rick Pitino and then modified it to suit his players' defensive strengths.

"The first day I took over the team, I put in these 'fireman drills,' where we go four-on-four. First, the four guys on offense face a full-court press. If they beat that, there are four more guys waiting for them at half court.

"It's very wearing and very competitive, almost like running a gantlet, but it gets us fired up offensively and defensively, and in top condition for game time."

But Jackson still needed the players to carry out this demanding style of defense.

"The key to this defense is getting pressure at the point of the attack," Jackson said. "I tried Craig Hodges there, but only John Paxson was comfortable with it. He exhibited a desire to pressure the ball and turn his man into the traps."

That is where the Bulls' two prize Dobermans -- Jordan and small forward Scottie Pippen -- take over, harassing rivals into repeated turnovers with their quick hands.

Said Bach: "Pippen has gone from being a matador with a cape to making real sound defensive decisions. If the ball handler manages to get past Pippen and Jordan, we still have [power forward] Horace Grant, who has tremendous energy and recovery speed to blanket an open man."

The Bulls are highly adaptable. The longer a series, the tighter their defense becomes.

"We grab teams and learn how to play them," Jackson said. "The Lakers post up and make defenders commit, and then they hit their spot-up players. We wanted to change their vision and make them go to different areas."

This post-up strategy allowed Los Angeles to win the opening game in Chicago, but in each successive game, the Bulls have forced the Lakers offense farther out on the floor until, save for center Vlade Divac, they find themselves restricted to low-percentage jump shots.

When the Lakers bogged down in the past, Johnson simply took charge, barreling and spinning his way down the lane for layups. But Johnson, 31 and with creaky knees, has been faced consistently with full-court pressure. And, in a half-court game, he has found the Bulls defense almost seamless.

"Magic is the major factor for the Lakers in distributing the ball," said Jordan, who has alternated with Pippen in guarding the Lakers playmaker. "We have to rotate and give him no outlets to look at, and we've done an excellent job of it."

Forward Sam Perkins, who won the first game with a three-point shot, was even more frustrated than Johnson in Game 4, managing to hit only one of 15 field-goal attempts.

"We did an excellent job of turning Perkins away from his left hand," said Jackson.

The way the Bulls have reduced his team's offensive options comes as no shock to Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy.

"It's no surprise to me," said Dunleavy. "The Bulls are very athletic and smart. Check the stats. They have two of the leading steal guys in the league in Jordan and Pippen. What they're doing on defense is no accident."

Now, the Bulls are ready to steal their first NBA title. But, first, Bach may be planning a special screening of "The Sands of Iwo Jima."

NBA Finals

Game 1: Lakers 93, Bulls 91

Game 2: Bulls 107, Lakers 86

Game 3: Bulls 104, Lakers 96, OT

Game 4: Bulls 97, Lakers 82

Tomorrow: at L.A., 9 p.m., Chs. 2, 4

Friday: at Chi., 9 p.m.*, Chs. 2, 4

Sunday: at Chi., 7 p.m.*, Chs. 2, 4

* -- if necessary.

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