NEW YORK -- Afterward, there was no desperation in Michael Jordan's voice, and there were no signs that his confidence was shaken.
Yes, Jordan ended last night with a game-high 36 points, but again one of the game's clutch fourth-quarter players failed to deliver as usual in the final 12 minutes as New York defeated Chicago, 96-91, at Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks simply held serve in the series, which now travels to Chicago for games 3 and 4 on Saturday and Monday. But the deficit puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the Bulls, whose dreams of a three-peat are being stifled by a suffocating New York defense.
"It's a great challenge," said Jordan, who scored 25 points in the first half. "We have to now go home and try to take it one game at a time."
It was a matter of defense and offensive balance for the Knicks, who held the Bulls to 43.1 percent shooting from the field and placed all five starters in double figures. Patrick Ewing scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, Doc Rivers had 21 points and Charles Oakley had 14 points and 16 rebounds as New York took yet another step in reaching its first NBA final in 20 years.
"We have elevated our game," said Ewing, who scored eight fourth-quarter points, including two baskets in the last three minutes when the Bulls were attempting a final comeback. "And we have to continue to play at this level if we want to win the championship."
It's an elevation of the game that Jordan usually masters, but for the second straight game the Bulls' star shot just 2-of-9 from the field in the fourth quarter. Jordan, who hit 12 of 32 overall, did hit some tough baskets as the Chicago cut a 14-point deficit to three in the final quarter, but once again he was forced to take -- and miss -- some difficult shots as the Knicks ran two and three players at him. Again, in the end, Jordan was not good enough to overcome New York's sound defense.
It didn't help Chicago that the final comeback was played with Scottie Pippen in the locker room. Pippen, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, was ejected with 7:34 left in the fourth quarter after throwing the ball at referee Bill Oakes after being called for a double dribble. "That hit me in the chest, right below my head," said Oakes.
It was just one of many signs of frustration demonstrated by the defending champions.
"I wasn't trying to embarrass him, but obviously he didn't feel that way," said Pippen, who had hit 7-of-12 shots. "I thought he made a bad call. He asked me to give him the ball and I did. I didn't see where it went."
But off went Pippen, with Chicago trailing, 83-71. Still, the Bulls, helped by their pressure defense, cut the lead to three several times in the final minutes and even had a chance to cut it to one but Bill Cartwright missed two free throws with a minute left and Chicago trailing, 91-88.
New York guard John Starks then followed with the play of the series. Working off a Ewing screen along the right baseline, he soared with a spectacular left-handed, leaning dunk over Horace Grant that was Jordanesque to give the Knicks a 93-88 lead with 47.7 seconds left.
Chicago would later get within 93-91 after Cartwright hit one of two free throws with 15.7 seconds left. But Oakley hit three of four free throws the rest fo the way to finish the scoring.
Later, it seemed all the Knicks wanted to talk about was Starks' dunk.
"I've always been in awe of his athletic ability," said New York guard Doc Rivers, who scored 14 of his points in the first half. "But that dunk was on another level. I had a good view and I didn't think he would get there. It was tremendous."
Tremendous, like the way the Knicks' backcourt has outplayed Chicago's -- something that was not suppose to happen in this series. Rivers and Starks have keyed a defense that has harassed Jordan into 22 of 59 shooting through two games. Their penetration on offense provided easy scoring opportunities for themselves and teammates during the third quarter in which the Knicks held Chicago to 14 points while building a 14-point lead.
"Doc was Doc," Ewing said of Rivers' play. "He's been stepping up big, doing it all year for us. We need him to continue that."
New York's physical play a year ago made for an ugly seven-game series, and it could get ugly again as the venue changes to Chicago. New York guard Greg Anthony was ejected in the fourth quarter after taking Jordan down hard, and afterward Phil Jackson complained about what he thought were some unfair New York tactics.
"It was just one conflict after another," Jackson said. "It's irritating. But they get away with it."
And they're up 2-0, with visions of going into the NBA finals. Madison Square Garden was alive, and the Knicks are hoping to be back later on playing for the championship.
"We have to go to Chicago now and try to get one," Oakley said. "We have to keep playing hard and go to Chicago and try to get one."