The bad memories of a year ago are driving Michael Jordan these days.
The memories of walking off the court at the United Center a year ago yesterday after being eliminated by the Orlando Magic in the second round, his confidence shattered. Of missed shots. Of being hounded defensively by players who once feared him. Of the biting comments from Orlando guard Nick Anderson that will be rehashed over and over in the next few days:
"No. 45 [the number Jordan wore last year] doesn't explode like No. 23 used to," Anderson said after a poor performance by Jordan during last year's playoffs. "No. 23, he could just blow by you. He took off like a space shuttle. No. 45, he revs up, but he doesn't really take off."
Yes, Jordan remembers, and the time for payback has come. A series that has been highly anticipated from the time training camp began in October becomes reality this afternoon when the Bulls play host to the Orlando Magic in Game 1 of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals.
It's a game that features perhaps the two best teams in the NBA -- Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman vs. Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee Hardaway and Horace Grant. Wonder why there will be three days off between Games 2 and 3? The NBA wants to milk as many ratings points as possible.
"I guess this is the series that America wants," Magic guard Dennis Scott said.
After an off-season of conditioning devoted to getting back to his old self, no one wants it more than Jordan.
"I must give [the Magic] credit; they gave me the initiative to go back into the gym and get my game back where it needed to Jordan said. "So in some ways, I appreciate what they did. Now it's just a matter of seeing how I can repay them for what they did to me."
will be far from a solo effort. The Bulls' playoff loss to the Magic last season had more to do with a lack of a power forward to bang with Orlando's Grant than Jordan's poor play. Which is why the Bulls in the off-season traded for Rodman.
"From the time the season was over last year, we generated our personnel on this ballclub toward the fact that Orlando would be the team that would be in the running next year," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. "Well, this is next year. This is the time when you set up to win this series."
After losing in the first meeting of the season to an Orlando team that was without O'Neal, the Bulls (who were without Rodman) won their remaining three games against the Magic.
The key figure in the four games during the season was not one of the marquee players. It was Bulls 6-foot-10 reserve forward Toni Kukoc, who averaged 20.5 points against the Magic -- doing lot of his damage from the perimeter.
Kukoc injured his back during the conference semifinals, missing the last three games of that New York Knicks series after spraining ligaments in his lower back. But he participated in practice for the first time on Friday and is expected to play today.
Chicago also will need solid play from Pippen, who struggled with his shot against New York.
The Magic won't resort to the grind-it-out tactics of New York, but it will rely on the physical presence of O'Neal, who outmuscled the Atlanta Hawks.
In that series, O'Neal dominated Christian Laettner. He'll find it much more difficult against a Chicago team that carried four centers into the playoffs (Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, James Edwards and John Salley) solely with the intent of stopping O'Neal. O'Neal hit just 14 of his last 45 free throws in the Atlanta series, and if that continues, Chicago will simply keep putting him on the line.
Although the Magic is the defending Eastern Conference champion, it probably isn't carrying as much pressure as the Bulls. While the Bulls were in the spotlight in their pursuit of the NBA regular-season record for victories, the Magic quietly compiled a 60-22 record.
"The Bulls were supposed to get here," Hardaway said. "But for us to get back to the Eastern Conference finals and to be four games away from getting back to the [NBA] Finals, that's a great feeling."
An even greater feeling would be an NBA title, and Orlando is driven by the humbling four-game sweep at the hands of the Houston Rockets last year.
"We have a year under our belts after taking it to the finals and going through the playoffs," Grant said. "So we're not intimidated [by the Bulls]. When Michael came back last year, everybody had pretty much written us off against the Bulls. So it's no different this year."
But it is different, with the Magic now facing the real Jordan -- not the impostor who, after a short-lived baseball career, failed in his attempt last season to regain his old form during the final 17 games.
"I just had to sharpen some of my instruments," Jordan said. "It took me all year to do so.
"I was disappointed [last season], but any kind of negative thing, something good is going to come out of it. That's where I am right now."
Five ways to beat the Bulls
1. Attack Michael Jordan: Teams will not stop Jordan's offense. But if he's made to play constant defense, he might tire during crunch time. Nick Anderson, if he is matched against Jordan as expected, must have a good offensive series for the Magic to have a chance to win.
2. Be extremely physical: The Bulls were knocked out of their offensive rhythm in the New York series because of the Knicks' physical style. "You have to beat them up," Charles Barkley said. "Other than Dennis and Michael, they're not a physical team."
3. Keep Dennis Rodman off the boards and frustrate him: "If he gets eight or 10 rebounds, that's an off night for him and he's probably going to do something crazy -- get a technical, get frustrated, maybe head-butt a ref," Orlando forward Horace Grant said.
4. Score from the perimeter: Miami guard Rex Chapman, in a win over the Bulls, hit nine three-pointers. New York's Derek Harper (23 points) had four three-pointers, as did Anfernee Hardaway (36 points) in other Chicago losses.
5. Run at every opportunity: Jordan is 33. Scottie Pippen is 30. Rodman is 35. They don't want to run. "They're one of the most disciplined teams in the league, and they don't want to get into a run-and-gun game," Barkley said.
Pub Date: 5/19/96