CHICAGO -- For three quarters, there were signs that this NBA Finals series would not be the romp that everyone expected. There were signs that maybe the Seattle SuperSonics could push the Chicago Bulls, something no team had been able to accomplish through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
But just as they did against the Orlando Magic and the New York Knicks, the Bulls kicked their defense into high gear in the fourth quarter last night and got a big offensive lift from reserve forward Toni Kukoc on the way to a 107-90 victory in Game 1 of the Finals.
Kukoc scored 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, breaking open a close game. He was one of five Bulls to score in double figures, with Michael Jordan leading the way with 28 and Scottie Pippen adding 21.
"Toni has been struggling [32.1 percent going into last night], but he came out today and got going," Jordan said. "He made some shots and his confidence started to grow."
On paper, there were signs that the Sonics did just what they wanted against the Bulls: They became just the second team in the playoffs to out-rebound Chicago (41-40), and they limited the Bulls to just 43.0 percent shooting.
The outcome might have been different had the Sonics not completely unraveled in the fourth quarter, when they scored just 13 points and had five crucial turnovers. A two-point game going into the fourth quarter turned into a rout, leaving the Sonics a day to find out just what hit them. Game 2 is here tomorrow night.
"They play with a great deal of confidence when their defense gets hot, and they got hot in the fourth quarter," said Seattle coach George Karl. "They have a knack to get more aggressive as the game goes on. We got more tentative and less aggressive -- we lost that battle of aggressiveness big-time."
That lack of aggression helped lead to 17 turnovers. Seven of those turnovers came from Shawn Kemp, who otherwise had a solid game with 32 points (nine of 14 from the field) and eight rebounds in 41 minutes.
Other than that, the night offensively was a nightmare for the Sonics. Sam Perkins scored 14 points, but missed nine of his 14 shots. Gary Payton and Detlef Schrempf each scored 13, but neither shot the ball well.
"I didn't shoot the ball well, I didn't finish well," Payton said. "[But] as long as I can do things to keep my teammates involved, I'll be OK."
The Seattle fade in the fourth could be partially the result of the extended minutes of the Sonics starters. Reserve guard Nate McMillan was limited to just six minutes with a sore back.
"Maybe we ran out of gas," Karl said. "Gary played a lot of minutes , so did Shawn. Without Nate, it makes it tough."
One of the biggest questions going into the game was who would check Jordan, and the answer was a surprising one.
On Monday, Karl said he would start Hersey Hawkins on Jordan rather than Payton, the Defensive Player of the Year. But the Sonics came out with a completely different wrinkle, matching 6-foot-10 small forward Schrempf on Jordan, with Payton defending Pippen.
That move at the start appeared to bother 6-6 Jordan, who missed his first two shots and was forced almost totally to the perimeter by the taller Schrempf. But he eventually got untracked.
"I anticipate them throwing a lot of people at me," Jordan said. "That's their way of making other players step up and hurt them. We proved other players can step up and hurt them."
None more so than Kukoc, who, after relying mostly on jumpers during the playoffs, began posting up more. He did hit two three-pointers during the key fourth-quarter spurt that turned a 79-77 game into a 93-82 runaway in just over five minutes. Kukoc even converted a rare four-point play after he was fouled by Kemp on his second three-pointer.
"I felt very confident," Kukoc said. "I realize I have to go down and post up, instead of hoping my three-point shot will go down in every game."
During one stretch of the first half the Sonics battled the Bulls evenly. Chicago was leading, 44-43, when the Sonics were hurt by a ploy that backfired.
If there is a so-called enforcer in Seattle's lineup, it's Frank Brickowski, and one has to think that when he checked in with 3: 12 left in the second quarter his job was to bait Dennis Rodman, who had already picked up a technical foul. But Brickowski was called for a flagrant foul after tossing Rodman to the floor with 1: 27 left, and then was ejected after picking up two technical fouls.
That was the start of five straight free throws by the Bulls, with two by Jordan with 1: 18 left increasing the lead to 49-43. Led by Jordan's 18 points, the Bulls had a 53-48 halftime lead.
"I think the NBA has been tremendously unfair to Frank ever since the fight with David Robinson earlier this season," Karl said. "The league has a magnifying glass on him. That was five free throws in a point where the game was equal."
Give Rodman (seven points, 13 rebounds) credit for keeping his cool. That's something the Sonics could not do in the fourth quarter, when they lost theirs against Chicago's defensive pressure.
"Against Chicago, you have to take care of the ball," Perkins said. "Those turnovers at the end were costly, there was some miscommunication and we can't have that.
"We stayed close," Perkins said. "But now we have to realize that we have to play to win instead of playing just to stay close. There is no way to play just to look good."
Pub Date: 6/06/96
Chicago vs. Seattle
(Chicago leads series, 1-0)
Day .. .. .. .. .. Site/result .. Time
Yesterday .. .. .. Chicago, 107-90
Tomorrow ... .. .. at Chicago .. ... 9
Sunday .. .. .. .. at Seattle .. 7: 30
Wednes. . .. .. .. at Seattle .. ... 9
June 14* ... .. .. at Seattle .. ... 9
June 16* ... .. .. at Chicago .. 7: 30
June 19* ... .. .. at Chicago .. ... 9
TV: All games on chs. 11, 4