CHICAGO -- This time it made no difference what number Michael Jordan wore on his back. Or what color shoes he sported on his feet. Both were dead issues.
What we got instead in Game 3 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series was a youthful Orlando Magic team that, instead of getting caught up in the Jordan-hysteria, managed to demonstrate a degree of poise necessary to win championships.
Orlando's prolific offensive attack finally showed signs of life, and the team's defense smothered Chicago in the late going, helping the Magic defeat the Bulls, 110-101, before a stunned sellout crowd of 24,281 at the United Center.
Yes, Jordan defied league rules and once again wore No. 23. And yes, Jordan led all scorers with 40 points, at times looking like the Jordan of old. But the Magic took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with Game 4 to be played here tomorrow at 5:30 p.m.
"It's too early in the series to talk about this as a devastating loss," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. "This is a critical game for us, obviously. This is a game that is critical for us, and we know it."
And it's gotten to the critical stage because the Magic was allowed to play at a fast pace, a style it was successful with all season but a style that had been elusive in the first two games of this series.
"We need to get Orlando in a half-court game on Sunday," Bulls center Luc Longley said. "We blew an opportunity, but this thing has passed over, and we still have plenty of opportunities left."
The Bulls blew this one by failing to score a field goal in the last 5:08 of the game. Their last field goal, a layup by Toni Kukoc, gave the Bulls a 95-91 lead at the time.
But the Magic would eventually tie the game on a three-pointer by Nick Anderson with 3:46 left, and took the lead for good with 1:38 left when Anfernee Hardaway hit two of three free throws to make it 103-101 after being fouled by Michael Jordan on a three-point attempt.
At the end it was the Bulls who looked like the young, indecisive team as they forced bad shots and turned the ball over in attempts to get back into the game.
"We had a good game until about four minutes to go and then we came apart," Jackson said. "We did not make them play offense and settle for the outside shots. They got to the free throw line and made their foul shots."
And once again it was Shaquille O'Neal leading the way from the line, eight of 10 free throws thus nullifying the Hack-at-Shaq game plan of the Bulls. O'Neal had his best game of the series, scoring 28 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
"We were more aggressive tonight, passing the ball quicker, and I was in the game, especially in the critical parts," O'Neal said. "Free throws are one of my downfalls. I know if I concentrate they will go down."
They seemed to be going down for all five starters, who each scored in double figures. Nick Anderson scored 22 points, Hardaway had 19 points, eight assists and six rebounds and Horace Grant continued his steady play with an 18-point, 14-rebound effort.
"Horace has done a fantastic job, there's no question about it," Magic coach Brian Hill said. "I also thought Shaq stepped up pretty big. Great players step up in big positions like this, and Shaq stepped up."
Early on it was Jordan who did the stepping up. By halftime Jordan had 31 points, having hit 12 of 19 shots as he appeared to attack the basket at will.
"Michael's a great player. He had a lot of shots," O'Neal said. "When he's hot like that, they are not much . . . they are not much . . . you know what I'm trying to say."
Maybe what O'Neal was trying to say was that when Jordan goes off like that, the rest of the team tends to stand around and watch him. Toni Kukoc was last night's victim of the Jordan explosion, scoring just eight points in 40 minutes.
"Our shot distribution could have been a little better and we could have moved the ball a little better," Jackson said. "We settled for the outside shot and that does breed a little frenetic action."
Jordan was hitting from everywhere early, and the Bulls had a 10-point lead in the first quarter and threatened to run away with the game. But by halftime Orlando had a 65-61 lead, marking its best scoring half of the series and establishing the type of pace that the team plays its best at.
"We knew at halftime we just needed to make more shots in the second half than in the first and we could win," Hardaway said. "The Bulls started out hot and were making all their shots. But we were coming back and still down by just four or five points."
Jordan obviously got tired in the second half, when he made just three of 12 shots. He continued his press blackout, concluding his fifth straight day of not addressing the media.
The Bulls had hoped Jordan does his talking on the court tomorrow, almost a must win for Chicago. Because a loss there would give the Magic a 3-1 lead, with a chance to close out the series on Tuesday in Orlando.
Establishing tempo will be key.
"This is what the playoffs are all about," Longley said. "This is the fun part of the game where things change game in and game out."
And this might be where the Magic grew up.
"People gave up on us," Hardaway said. "We proved something to ourselves."
Orlando 32 33 15 30 -- 110
Chicago 37 24 20 20 -- 101
ORLANDO -- Grant 7-10 4-6 18, Scott 3-9 3-3 10, O'Neal 10-18 8-10 28, Anderson 7-13 5-6 22, Hardaway 6-14 6-8 19, Royal 0-1 2-4 2, Avent 0-0 0-0 0, Shaw 4-8 0-0 9, Bowie 0-1 2-2 2. Totals 37-74 30-39 110.
CHICAGO -- Pippen 9-20 6-9 25, Kukoc 3-10 2-2 8, Longley 3-4 0-0 6, Armstrong 5-10 1-1 14, Jordan 15-31 10-10 40, Perdue 0-0 0-0 0, Buechler 0-1 0-0 0, Kerr 2-6 0-0 6, Wennington 1-3 0-0 2, Myers 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 38-86 19-22 101.
3-point goals--Orlando 6-15 (Anderson 3-6, Hardaway 1-2, Shaw 1-2, Scott 1-5), Chicago 6-19 (Armstrong 3-5, Kerr 2-4, Pippen 1-5, Kukoc 0-2, Jordan 0-3). Fouled out--None. Rebounds--Orlando 54 (Grant 14), Chicago 43 (Pippen 12). Assists--Orlando 20 (Hardaway 8), Chicago 24 (Kukoc 7). Total fouls--Orlando 25, Chicago 27. Technicals--Chicago illegal defense 2. Flagrant fouls--Bowie. A--24,281.