NEW YORK -- It's high noon in Gotham.
The fast guns just got in from Chicago.
The townspeople have boarded up their storefronts and are huddled in small groups, awaiting the outcome.
It's the NBA's most eagerly awaited matchup of the post-Magic and Bird era, the twice-defending champion Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks, who narrowly missed knocking them off last spring, opening the Eastern finals today at 3:30 p.m. (Chs. 2, 4) in a conference matchup that promises to dwarf the finals, in TV ratings at least.
The Bulls are the ones who have blitzed through the playoffs, winning all seven games, including a 4-0 sweep of the once-respected Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Knicks are the ones with home-court advantage.
The Bulls are the ones with Michael Jordan.
Such is their respect for Jordan, who averaged 31 points in last spring's series and scored 42 in Game 7 to bail out the Bulls, the Knicks can barely imagine disturbing him in the completion of his appointed rounds.
Jordan's teammate, Scottie Pippen, is another story.
Last spring, the Knicks visited a reign of terror upon Pippen, spearheaded by Xavier McDaniel, with the rest of the roster poised behind him to make the big hit, like Dick Butkus lined up behind his defensive line. The prize for defensive help went to -- who else? -- John Starks, who crashed Pippen to the floor with a flying clothesline tackle in Game 6 that prevented the layup and cost Starks a $5,000 fine.
No, Pippen won't be wearing a bulls-eye when he walks onto the floor in Madison Square Garden today but he won't need one. The Knicks remember.
"I don't think it's going to help them," Pippen said last week from the safety of Chicago. "They tried it before and they didn't get anywhere with it. They realize we can overcome that."
Pippen apparently has a problem with reality. The facts are that he averaged 21 points and shot 49 percent in all other playoff games, but against the Knicks, dropped to 16 and 40 percent.
With McDaniel gone, the Knicks will line up Charles Smith against Pippen, but this is expected to be a warm-up for the main event, Pippen vs. Anthony Mason. Smith is an out-of-position power forward who has struggled defensively against more ordinary fare than Pippen.
At season's end, the Knicks were regarded as favorites. They had won more games than the Bulls (60-57), closed hotter (39-8 to the Bulls' 33-14) and won the season series (3-1). The Bulls struggled down the stretch, losing most of the key games in which they tried to reach back, including the finale to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Since then, the Bulls have heated up, blitzing past the Atlanta Hawks and the Cavaliers, even winning the two games in Cleveland with Jordan playing with a sore right wrist.
HOW BULLS (57-25) AND KNICKS (60-22) MATCH UP
* Point guards: Chicago's B. J. Armstrong is having an exceptional postseason, outplaying both Atlanta's Mookie Blaylock and the Cavaliers' Mark Price. He's a reliable perimeter shooter who hurt the Knicks last season in the playoffs. But New York veteran Doc Rivers has proved invaluable in the clutch. Edge: Knicks.
* Shooting guards: John Starks' ability to handle the ball was critical to the Knicks handling Charlotte's full-court pressure. He will score and create for others. But he is matched against Michael Jordan, who time and again seems to top himself to add to his legend. He's motivated by the challenge of winning three consecutive titles, something neither Magic Johnson nor Larry Bird achieved. Look for a phenomenal series from His Airness. Edge: Bulls.
* Centers: Patrick Ewing has had his troubles in the past against the Bulls, but is too dedicated to getting a championship ring to be sidetracked this time. Chicago's Bill Cartwright has been slowed by injuries, but the former Knick usually can be relied on to push and shove and throw Ewing off rhythm. But he's facing a better and more determined Ewing this time. Edge: Knicks.
* Small forwards: Both Charles Smith and Scottie Pippen have something to prove. Smith will be scrutinized because he's manning the position Xavier McDaniel flourished in during last postseason's duel with the Bulls. But Pippen is more experienced and confident this time around. The theory to rattle him, according to McDaniel, is to be physical. Edge: Bulls.
* Power forwards: New York's Charles Oakley is playing perhaps the best ball of his career, being a terror on both ends of the floor. He seems to be as much on a mission as Ewing. Chicago's Horace Grant is a steady defender and rebounder, but he has a bad right ankle that bears watching. Edge: Knicks.
* Bench: The Knicks' depth could be the key to the series. Strong efforts are needed from Anthony Mason and Greg Anthony, and particularly from Rolando Blackman. The Bulls have not found a replacement for departed Cliff Levingston. Rodney McCray, slowed by injuries, has been disappointing, and ex-Knick Trent Tucker has been in a slump. Chicago needs John Paxson to hit key jump shots and Scott Williams to play under control. Edge: Knicks.
* Coaches: Knicks' Pat Riley is peerless. He has more playoff wins than anyone, a clue he knows what buttons to push and when. Phil Jackson has done another stellar job, this time with many key players ailing. And he has the highest winning percentage in playoffs. Without a doubt, Jackson's best
coaching move is to tell his players: "Get the ball to Michael." Edge: Knicks.
* Prediction: Knicks in seven games.