CHICAGO -- Spin doctors serving the Chicago Bulls an Phoenix Suns were working at cross purposes after the defending champion Bulls returned home with a 2-0 advantage in the best-of-seven NBA finals that resume here tonight.
The Bulls, seeking a third straight title, were trying their best not to swagger.
The Suns, on the other hand, were trying to put up a brave front in the face of a headline in the Arizona Republic that read, "Mission ImpossiBull."
Asked how big a hole his team faces, Charles Barkley, who turned in a 42-point, 13-rebound performance in the Suns' bitter, 111-108 loss Friday night, said, "Well, Arizona is the right state for holes. Right now, we'll fit right in with the Grand Canyon."
How did the Suns find themselves in such a dilemma? Certainly, Barkley couldn't be blamed. Nor could veteran guard Danny Ainge, who scored 12 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter only to see his potential game-tying three-pointer with 28 seconds left get swatted away by Scottie Pippen.
Instead, much of the blame fell on Kevin Johnson, the Suns' floor leader, who appeared lost for the second straight outing. His line after two games: 5-for-22 from the field, 15 points, eight assists and nine turnovers.
"You've got to keep the faith, but right now I feel like Job in the Bible," said the frustrated Johnson, who was benched for most of the last four minutes Friday night in favor of journeyman Frank Johnson.
"For our team to win, I've got to be able to contribute a lot more and find a way to be a thorn in their sides," said Johnson. "My game has always been to be aggressive, get the ball inside the other team's vulnerable spot. But I haven't been able to do that. Someone always seems to be blocking my way."
When it hasn't been a Bulls shot-blocker inside, that someone has been B. J. Armstrong, who has used his quickness and tenacity to discourage Johnson from penetrating the lane.
Armstrong's success hasn't surprised his teammates.
"This is the national spotlight," said Bulls reserve forward Stacey King, "and now everyone in the country is seeing the way B. J. can play defense. Barkley is the captain of the Suns' ship. but someone has to get the ball to him, and B. J. keeps taking Kevin out of the play."
Added Bulls coach Phil Jackson: "We confounded or confused Kevin a little bit. Their pick and rolls weren't working early because B. J. had him under control."
In the Bulls' pecking order, Armstrong currently ranks fourth behind Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and power forward Horace Grant. But the former Iowa star is earning respect through his steady floor leadership and aggressive defense.
The baby-faced Armstrong has heard people question his toughness since he joined the Bulls as a first-round draft choice in 1989. He spent the first two seasons in a backup role to veteran John Paxson, an excellent spot-up shooter and underrated defender.
"I just had to wait my turn, but I wasn't frustrated. I was learning to play in a winning environment and with two great players in Jordan and Pippen. I just have to keep the team first and my individual goals second," he said.
"It [his waiting period] had nothing to do with not being mean enough. With my face, everyone thinks I'm young and soft. I didn't get to this point in my basketball career being a nice guy."
But Armstrong refuses to gloat about handcuffing Johnson, one of the NBA's premier playmakers.
"I don't think I've dominated him," Armstrong said.
"He just hasn't been looking for his shot. And when he looks to shoot, one of our guys is always in his face. He just hasn't been able to make the decisions he wants."
It will be up to Suns coach Paul Westphal to decide how long he can stick with his struggling floor leader.
"It's been a rough time for Kevin, but I can't worry about his confidence," said Westphal, defending his decision to bench his team captain with the game on the line.
"I had to hope someone else would do the job, but that's just basketball."
BULLS VS. SUNS
(Bulls lead series, 2-0)
Game 1 Bulls, 100-92
Game 2 Bulls, 111-108
Tonight at Chicago 7
Wednesday at Chicago 9 p.m.
June 18* at Chicago 9 p.m.
June 20* at Phoenix 7 p.m.
June 23* at Phoenix 9 p.m.
* If necessary
TV: Chs. 2, 4