It might have been Michael's best, but he has another game to top it


CHICAGO -- This is why he opens a restaurant with a bi ballooning basketball growing out of the roof, and people line up on game nights all the way around a city block.

This is why they name shoes and hamburgers after him; why million-dollar baseball players genuflect when they meet him; why we can cluck our tongues about his golf and his gambling and his ego, and we still cannot touch him.

This -- a flipping, spinning shot in the lane with 13 seconds left in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, with Nike buddy Charles Barkley on his backside. It went in, and so did the foul shot, for Michael Jordan's 53rd, 54th and 55th points of the night, and Chicago beat Phoenix, 111-105, when there were reasons to think the Bulls wouldn't.

Thus, Jordan is one game away from winning his third straight NBA title.

Bird didn't. Magic didn't. Erving didn't. Robertson didn't. West and Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar didn't.

There might be more grains in the bottom of Michael Jordan's hourglass than in the top. That does not mean he's running out of time.

"What he did tonight," said losing coach Paul Westphal, "was inflict his will on this ballgame."

"In a game like this I always try to play my best basketball," Jordan said. "Sometimes when I come out strong, I wind up getting out of rhythm. Tonight I wanted to keep going to the basket. I was going to do whatever it takes to get a step up."

The Bulls sometimes pay a high price for Michael Madness. In the regular season they split the four games in which he scored 50 or more. It almost happened here.

Scottie Pippen was sleek in the first quarter with 10 points. He scored only four the rest of the game. So rusty was Pippen that he passed off with tiny Kevin Johnson guarding him. Barkley stole the pass, and Phoenix had a chance to tie with 39 seconds left.

A chance, but not a shot. Danny Ainge's inbounds pass careened off Johnson, and B. J. Armstrong intercepted. The curtains parted, the band played, and heeeere's Michael, living inside the lane for the three-point play.

Some coaches have Jordan Rules. Westphal apparently has Jordan in the office Rotisserie league. The Suns' philosophy seems to be this: Lay our heads on the chopping block enough times, and Jordan will cut his hand open with the hatchet.

Jordan has 99 points in the two Chicago-based games, and an astonishing 144 shots in four Finals games. Rarely has Phoenix double-teamed him. It lured him into a jump-shooting game Sunday by guarding him with Johnson, but last night Westphal tried forward Richard Dumas first, and then the unfortunate Dan Majerle, who looked out of place without a checkered flag.

"When Majerle and Dumas were on me, I knew I could get a step on them," Jordan said. "I went to the basket then. When Johnson was on me I started backing him down, posting him up."

But Westphal is following a benign design. He thinks Chicago is beatable when Jordan scores 55 and Pippen scores 14. And he's right.

"We're still not convinced," he said. "It's going to take one more game like that to convince us. It doesn't matter who we play on him. Nobody can stop him."

But Horace Grant with 17 points and 16 rebounds? Phoenix could have stopped him rather easily. It could have removed him from the game, since the quickest power forward in basketball drew his fifth foul with 10 minutes left. Instead, Grant was right there to rebound Jordan's miss and score, 1:48 left, putting Chicago up by six.

"They tried to go inside, to Charles, to get me outta there," Grant said, "but I got good help from Scottie and Bill Cartwright."

The Suns did not go inside nearly enough. In a stretch of six straight downcourt trips, Barkley did not touch the ball. It was K. J. On Parade.

It looked pretty -- Johnson had nine fourth-quarter points -- but Barkley was the one who had to carry Phoenix to within 106-104. If he had been permitted to foul out Grant, Phoenix might well have won.

Grant and Pippen, of course, like to trumpet their disaffection when Jordan plays yo-yo with the basketball.

"I think tonight he was very special," Grant said. "But more of us have to step up and help him carry the load."

"But when he does it in the context of the offense, it's fine," Armstrong said.

And in Game 4, it was. Jordan shot 18 free throws. That's 13 more than all the Bulls took in all 62 minutes of Game 3. Like a DC-10, Jordan simply flowed toward smooth air. He found it in the hollow core of the Phoenix defense. He got a little obsessive in the second quarter when he pushed his total to 33. But if not him, who?

"The rest of our guys," coach Phil Jackson said, "were a little reticent."

Only Elgin Baylor (61 points, 31 years ago) has scored more in a Finals game than Jordan did last night. And Jordan's 43-point Finals average is well ahead of the record, set by Rick Barry (40.8) in 1967, for the Warriors against Philadelphia. Barry lost. Jordan is not likely to.

"It might be one of my greatest games," Jordan said.

When you have a restaurant with a big, ballooning basketball growing out of the roof, you figure you won't fool anybody with humility.

"But I think my greatest games in the playoffs have been the ones where we've won," he added. "So that's what I'm shooting for. And I hope my greatest game is yet to be played."

Michael's hopes often become our videos.

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