ORLANDO, Fla. -- This was not about a personal vendetta, Michael Jordan was saying. It was not about redeeming himself from his most embarrassing moment as a player a year ago when the Orlando Magic eliminated the Chicago Bulls from the playoffs.
The truth is that this was personal for Jordan. And on a day when his teammates didn't play particularly well, Jordan scored 45 points to lead the Bulls to a 106-101 win that sent Chicago to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993.
A year ago, the Magic was playing in the NBA Finals. Now it holds the distinction of being the first team since 1950 to be swept from the playoffs three straight years.
"It's really sickening because we are a better team than what we displayed," said Magic point guard Anfernee Hardaway, who had 28 points to tie Shaquille O'Neal for team scoring honors. "Even though we had injuries, it's still hard to take that and live with it."
That resulted in Anthony Bowie starting, with Brooks Thompson and Joe Wolf getting extended minutes. And still the Magic led by as many as 11 points behind the inside muscle of O'Neal, who had 19 points in the first half.
"I thought we answered any questions that anybody had about the heart and will of our basketball team," said Orlando coach Brian Hill. "Unfortunately, there's a guy wearing No. 23 out there who had a pretty big impact on the game."
With Chicago trailing 56-47 at the half, Jordan took charge in the third quarter, scoring 15 points to help the Bulls to a 75-74 lead. He scored 25 points in the second half to give him 45 -- the number he wore when he returned last year, before changing it during a poor series against Orlando.
"I figured that was going to come out after last year, the number change and 45 didn't look like 23," Jordan said, showing he hadn't forgotten Anderson's criticism of him from a year ago. "Believe me, I didn't have anything to do with the points I scored. . . . Sometimes it's ironic the way things happen."
And perhaps it's fitting that Jordan's performance came when he was less than 100 percent, as he woke up feeling under the weather and played with a tender left ankle. That's a tribute to his toughness, and a lesson for the younger Orlando players -- particularly Anderson, who many thought was seriously injured after he sobbed while carried from the court on Saturday for what turned out to be just a sprain.
"Michael has a penchant for coming up with these kind of games under duress," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. "He had a great game."
And without it the Bulls could have gone home for a Game 5, instead of resting and awaiting the Utah-Seattle winner.
Scottie Pippen, who scored 27 points Saturday, struggled and wound up with 12. Jordan (16 of 23) was the only Chicago starter to make more than half his shots.
"I think he was disappointed in our play," Bulls reserve guard Steve Kerr said. "We were not really ready for this game."
Which is why O'Neal pretty much had his way through three quarters, scoring 26 points. But the Bulls began aggressively doubling O'Neal and in the fourth quarter when Orlando needed him most, he got just one shot.
"He had 16 touches in the first half, and 16 touches in the second half," Hill said. "We didn't have the same luck collectively as a team scoring out of all of his touches as we did in the first half."
"There's no way we thought we could come in and sweep this team," Jackson said. "We would have liked to beat the Orlando Magic with their best players. It doesn't ring as true as if they had all their players."
"There's no reason for us to feel sorry," Pippen said. "Last year they came right at us and Michael was fresh off the baseball field, and they didn't feel sorry for us."
No, the Magic treated Jordan like he was Jack Haley -- with little respect. Which may be why Jordan, after hitting a key three-pointer from in front of the Orlando bench in the fourth quarter, looked back and gave a long stare.
Redemption. That's what it was, even if Jordan won't admit it.
"It's been a long road . . ." Jordan said. "I feel really good to be back [to the finals]. But we're not done yet."
Pub Date: 5/28/96