CHICAGO -- For some members of the Chicago Bulls, the nine-day wait between the end of the Eastern Conference finals and the start of the NBA Finals wasway too long. But for Toni Kukoc, the extended break turned out to be preseason camp revisited.
"All I did was practice shooting every day," Kukoc said. "I went out and would just shoot hundreds of shots, just so I could get my release automatic."
It had been such a bad stretch for Kukoc before the start of the NBA Finals on Wednesday that, well, a three-point shooting contest against Shaquille O'Neal may not have yielded a clear favorite. But an 18-performance by Kukoc -- including 12 in the final quarter -- helped spark the 107-90 win over the Seattle SuperSonics in Game 1.
With Kukoc on his game, the Sonics face the prospect of facing a Chicago team that might soon be close to clicking on all cylinders. Kukoc, going into Wednesday, had hit just three of 36 three-point tries (.086) in the playoffs. The 6-foot-11 forward hit two straight three-pointers less than 90 seconds apart in the fourth quarter when he scored 10 straight Chicago points. The outburst could not have come at a worse time for the Sonics, who had trailed 79-77 when the fourth quarter began.
"His points were huge," Seattle coach George Karl said. "We had the confidence in the game at the time."
Even with the loss, Karl said his team's confidence hasn't been shattered as the Sonics attempt to get back into a series few feel they can win. Seattle ran numerous defenders at Michael Jordan (28 points) with marginal success, but Karl said the real challenge is not crumbling under the defensive pressure that led to 17 Sonics turnovers -- and 24 Chicago points.
"I don't think we played well, and it was still a seven-point game with five minutes to go," Karl said. "It was not a blowout. It was not a destruction.
"We don't want to win one game, two games -- we want to win it [all]. It starts with winning one game, and I think that's going to happen. It has a chance of happening real soon."
There's also a chance of this se- Kukoc ries being over by this time next week if the Sonics don't find an answer to Kukoc, who is now feeling nearly 100 percent for the first time since straining a muscle in his lower back that forced him to miss the last three games of the second round against the New York Knicks.
"I spent the eight days [leading to Wednesday's Game 1] getting back into shape," Kukoc said. "I wasn't practicing much after I suffered the back injury."
Of the Chicago reserves, only Kukoc and Bill Wennington (four points, three rebounds in 10 minutes) didn't appear to get caught up in -- and maybe intimidated by -- the frenzy of the NBA Finals. Kukoc, in his third NBA season, is making his first trip to the Finals. But he has had the experience of being in the spotlight while winning three European Championships.
"I've been through this [atmosphere] in Europe, and at the time I felt that was the best thing that could happen to me," Kukoc said. "When I played in Europe, I had no idea I would ever come here to play in the NBA, or in the NBA Finals. So this is the same thing now, just at a bigger basketball level."
A native of Croatia, Kukoc, 28, was the three-time European Player of the Year and was long considered the best player in the world outside the NBA. That acclaim had the Bulls wooing Kukoc for years, but life in the NBA has been an adjustment -- especially this season, when Kukoc spent much of his time coming off the bench. It's a role Kukoc had accepted reluctantly, but with the Bulls playing for the championship, he seems to have come around to it.
"I knew I wasn't going someplace where I could be the main guy," he said. "I just wanted to come over here and prove some things and make players believe in me and my game.
"I know that there are still a lot of doubts about my game, but all I'm trying to do is to play the best I can. To have all of these guys [Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman] around, you have to wait for your moment to come."
During his time of waiting with the Bulls, Kukoc has been forced to watch from afar as his homeland has been torn apart during the ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia. Kukoc last summer visited his family in Split, Croatia. And while he looks forward to returning this summer, he said it will take time for his homeland to recover. "There's no war anymore, and that's good," Kukoc said. "But now you have young men coming home from the war and it's like a Vietnam scene.
"It's a difficult thing right now for the country to stand on its own legs. I just hope it's going to happen as soon as possible. It can't be any harder than to be here and see the things that have gone on at home. All I could do was just hope that the war was going to stop."
With his mind no longer heavy with the problems at home, Kukoc can focus on basketball. At times in his career, he has been criticized for being a finesse player who stood clear of the physical play so prevalent in the NBA. And he's been ripped for his poor playoff performances. On Wednesday, he showed he still can have an impact on Chicago's run at a championship.
"I don't care much what people say. I don't read the newspapers so I don't know who criticizes me," Kukoc said. "I just hope I'm
going to be the last one laughing."
Chicago vs. Seattle
(Chicago leads series, 1-0)
Day .. .. .. .. .. Site/result .. .. Time
.. ... .. .. .. .. (Line)
Game 1 .. .. .. .. Chicago, 107-90
Today ... .. .. .. at Chicago (-9 1/2 ) ... 9
Sunday .. .. .. .. at Seattle ... . 7: 30
Wednesday .. .. .. 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