CHICAGO -- If you could use a word to describe the 38-point loss by the Orlando Magic in Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals, it would be embarrassing. If you could use a word to describe Orlando's five-point loss to the Chicago Bulls last night, it would be devastating.
It would be hard to recall a playoff game in which a team suffered such a collapse as the Magic did last night when it led by as many as 18 in the third quarter. The Bulls used a smothering defense to take both Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway out of the game and stole a 93-88 win.
The victory gives the Bulls a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven series, which shifts to Orlando on Saturday. The Magic return home having blown a perfect opportunity to do what only one other team has done this season -- win at the United Center.
"We came back in this game, we played a lot harder . . . we should have won," said Hardaway, who scored 18 points. "In the third quarter, everything went bad for us."
"Bad" is a nice way to describe what had transpired. Up until the midway point of the third, the Magic had been doing exactly what it pleased on the offensive end. O'Neal was the player on the floor who most resembled the NBA's Most Valuable Player (Jordan was honored for winning his fourth before the game), as he scored 26 in the first half against a team that features three all-NBA first-team defenders. When O'Neal scored on a short hook shot with 6: 16 left in the third quarter, the Magic had matched its biggest lead of the game, 64-46.
Then the Bulls went to a full-court press.
"They weren't letting me come near the basketball," Hardaway said. "Scottie was denying me and their team did a great job."
That left the ball-handling in the hands of Nick Anderson (four turnovers, three in the third quarter) and Dennis Scott. When the Magic did get into its offense, it was suddenly facing a Chicago team that began to front O'Neal in the post, and unleash a swarm of defenders any time he touched the ball.
"We abandoned our plan to play him one-on-one," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. "We had to double. We thought if we could cover Shaq in the middle and get a charge or make him stay on the perimeter and shoot his shot, we would be OK."
The Bulls' defense was so intense that O'Neal couldn't even catch the ball in the post. And as they effectively shut down Orlando's offense, the Bulls -- who scored just 38 points in the first half -- ended the quarter with a 21-5 run. Jordan scored 17 of his 35 points in the quarter, and the Bulls were within 69-67 going into the final quarter.
Watching the Magic handle the ball -- especially Anderson -- was almost comical. On one plan, Anderson had the ball near halfcourt and had a clear path to cross the center line -- and instead tried to throw the ball back to Hardaway, who was under the Bulls' basket. Pippen stepped in and got the steal, which later would result in two Jordan free throws.
"We felt we could put pressure on Nick and Dennis and make them turn the ball over," Jordan said. "We're hesitant to use the press -- we're the oldest team left in the playoffs. But we were 18 points down, we had no choice."
When Pippen hit a free throw with 9: 42 left in the game, the Bulls had their first lead since the opening minutes of the game. Orlando would come back and lead by as much as 79-76 after a hook by O'Neal with 5: 05 left. But Jordan later tied the game at 81 on a jumper, and the Bulls took the lead for good, 83-81, after a jumper by Steve Kerr with 2: 41 left.
O'Neal would score just 10 points in the second half after his dominant first half.
"I was surprised they started to double-team me," said O'Neal, who had six turnovers. "In the third and fourth quarters, we got kind of careless and had too many turnovers. We need to come out with the intensity we did in the beginning of the game for the whole game."
And maybe the Magic can generate that intensity on Saturday at home. There's a chance that Horace Grant, who missed last night's game with an injured left elbow, could return for that game.
But still, even in his absence, the Magic had a chance to put away the Bulls in the United Center -- and failed to follow through.
"It's a very difficult game for us to lose," Magic coach Brian Hill said. "Their defensive pressure was really the difference in the game."
Pub Date: 5/22/96