With no one to occupy Jordan, Pippen, Cavs have big problems


CHICAGO -- That wry grin, accompanied by the slightest shake of his head, started to spread across Lenny Wilkens' face as he was asked if the Chicago Bulls did anything different from the regular season in beating his team Tuesday.

"No," the Cleveland Cavaliers coach said, pausing. "They didn't trade anybody. Everybody's the same."

That's the problem for the Cavaliers heading into Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals here tonight. They're big underdogs and have lost 15 of their last 17 meetings with the Bulls, winning only when Michael Jordan didn't play in one game and when the Cavs shot 59.2 percent to prevail by one point in the other.

The Bulls still have Jordan and Scottie Pippen, their two best players. And Cleveland's two worst starters, Craig Ehlo and Mike Sanders, are assigned to Jordan and Pippen.

Tuesday it was 62 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists for the Bulls' duo and 12 points, six rebounds and eight assists for Cleveland's pair.

"Scottie and Michael are very good open-court players," Brad Daugherty observed in a bit of understatement. "We had trouble matching up with them. That's probably the bottom line."

Forget all that screen-and-roll stuff and whether John Battle will come off the bench in Game 2 instead of Steve Kerr, or whether Bill Cartwright can handle Daugherty alone and whether John Williams can get hot.

It's simple.

You don't beat the Bulls unless you can contain Jordan or Pippen. And that means at least having a player who can make one of them work on offense.

"I've read where Michael says [Utah's] Jeff Malone is his hardest opponent because he's always in motion," said Ehlo, who draws the lonely assignment in Cleveland's scheme of trying to handle Jordan almost alone. "We've let guys go where they wanted. It's obvious when Michael goes across the lane, he's going to get the ball, and I cannot let him do that."

If Ehlo succeeds, he would be the first. When Jordan wants the ball, he gets it.

But what the teams that trouble the Bulls have in common is a player to occupy Jordan or Pippen when they're on defense. Malone does that with his scoring.

For the Knicks, Gerald Wilkins was an annoyance to Jordan, but Pippen had the real problem in Xavier McDaniel, who caused it not only with his banging and holding but by going to the basket and looking for his shot.

That kept Pippen from roaming in the lane on defense, as he and Jordan like to do, and coming away with steals, which lead to fastbreaks and dunks -- and the opponent's demise.

In Game 1, Jordan's first-quarter steal from Mark Price led to John Paxson's short jumper on the break. And Jordan's steal from Daugherty led to a highlight-film fastbreak, with Jordan passing to Pippen, who gave the touch pass to Horace Grant for a slam. Then a Pippen steal against Daugherty led to a Pippen layup on a two-on-one break with Jordan.

"We were trying to force the situation," Wilkens said. "We were trying to penetrate where we shouldn't. We didn't move the ball and set good screens. We gave them easy layups. You can't do that."

This is not to say the Cavs aren't a fine team. They know they are.

"I know we have our critics, but there are 23 other teams home watching," Price said, "and that says something."

The Cavaliers have excellent shot blockers in Williams and Larry Nance, so they aren't defenseless.

"It's a different kind of defense, but it's defense," Jordan said.

Still, they don't contest Jordan and Pippen like most teams do, and the two have combined to average 58.5 points against the Cavaliers this season.

"New York's defense was more focused on me and Michael than Cleveland's," Pippen said.

In defense of the Cavaliers, they make a lot of teams like Boston, Philadelphia and New York look foolish with their kind of game. Those 57 wins were no fluke.

But they aren't as well-armed for the Bulls as perhaps Portland, with high-scoring Clyde Drexler going against Jordan, and Jerome Kersey, who can be physical, matched with Pippen.

"That's why we've had success against them," Portland coach Rick Adelman said recently.

So what do the Cavaliers do?

A more physical effort seems to be the demand after the Knicks' success in that area. But if the Cavaliers tried that, it would take away from the game they play best, and they seem to understand that.

"We're in the Eastern Conference finals," noted Ehlo, "and we got here playing the type of basketball we played all year long. When a guy cuts to the basket, you don't have to elbow him or trip him, just lay a body on him to keep him from doing what he wants to do.

"I kind of let Michael wander where he wanted to," added Ehlo, who scored his first point after Jordan had 31. "I've got to work a little harder to deny him the ball. It was a wakeup call for me. I have to put more energy and enthusiasm into this series."

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