CHICAGO -- When the Chicago Bulls left for Seattle a week ago, they assumed by now they would be NBA champions, considered by some to be the best team of all time. That honor has been all but dashed after the team's performance in the past two games of the NBA Finals, and tonight the Bulls will try to prove simply they are the best team in the NBA this season.
The Bulls arrived home a shaken team after Friday's 89-78 loss to the SuperSonics at Key Arena in Seattle. In losing Games 4 and 5, the Bulls have dropped consecutive games for just the second time this season. It was the second-lowest scoring game of the season for the Bulls, and the second straight game the top-scoring team in the league has failed to get at least 90 points. Game 6 is tonight in Chicago, with a possible Game 7 to be played here Wednesday night.
"The team is very disappointed," said Bulls guard Michael Jordan. "I think the first initiative in coming [to Seattle] in a 2-3-2 scenario is to win a game. After we won [Game 3] we wanted to do what we could to finish it. It didn't happen."
One of Chicago's problems has been injuries, something the team avoided in winning a regular-season record 72 games. And it doesn't help that the Bulls can't go to their bench with a playoff roster (John Salley, Bill Wennington and James Edwards) that was geared toward stopping Shaquille O'Neal.
The biggest injury is to point guard Ron Harper, who was to have been the main defender on Seattle All-Star Gary Payton. Harper has been limited to 15 minutes the past three games because of tendinitis in his left knee. With Harper out, Jordan has been expending a lot of his energy guarding Payton.
"Ron gives us a big defender and he gives us a player that plays without the ball and who moves the ball on offense," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said.
Also hobbled is Scottie Pippen, who has had numerous injuries (sore back, sore knees) throughout the second half of the season. Pippen looked tentative in scoring 14 points Friday night, when he missed 15 of 20 shots.
"I don't think you can single out Scottie, he's playing with a lot of injuries," Jordan said. "Some of us are healthy and we're not really picking up the slack. A lot of the guys have to come off the bench and support what Scottie is not able to give us."
Among the players Jordan singled out was Steve Kerr, a three-point specialist who has not been able to find his shot this series. Kerr hit just one of seven three-pointers Friday, making him 3-for-20 (15 percent) for the series. Many of his shots in Game 5 were wide-open looks, leading Jordan to have a few choice words with him during the game.
At one point the Bulls missed 20 straight three-point shots; they finished 3-for-26 (11.5 percent).
"We couldn't find the three-point shot to bring us back in the ballgame," Jackson said. "The difference is obviously our shooting."
That has a lot to do with a defense that improved at the same
time Sonics coach George Karl decided to defend Jordan with Payton. In the first two games Payton spent more time talking trash to Jordan than playing. When Payton did start the game against Jordan, Karl ran as many as five different defenders at Chicago's all-everything guard. The result Friday, with Hersey Hawkins taking his turn in the fourth quarter, was that Jordan had just two points (and four shot attempts) over the final 12 minutes.
"I think their team plays in a rhythm and if you somehow take them out of that rhythm, their shots don't come as easily," said Hawkins, who scored a career playoff high 21 points in Game 5. "I think we did a good job of [doubling Jordan] and not letting him shoot the quick shot.
"[Jordan] had to pass the basketball and other guys had to make decisions," Hawkins added. "It works in your favor when you have someone else shooting the ball other than Michael."
The question now is whether the Sonics can keep up that defensive performance for two more games. A week ago, after Seattle dropped the first three games, many were left wondering whether the Sonics were worthy of playing in the finals. Now Seattle will attempt to become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a title.
Karl believes his team can.
"I think [Friday's] game was the biggest test we ever had as a basketball team and our men showed up," Karl said. "My whole feeling is that we had to show a lot of courage to go back to Chicago. Now we're back there.
"I'm not going to strut up here and say something stupid that this is not an unbelievably tough challenge. But it's one game."
One game that the Sonics promise to play loose, unlike their performance here a week ago.
"The pressure is not on us," said forward Shawn Kemp. "Two or three days ago, nobody thought this series would still be going on. We're just out here having fun now."
Chicago vs. Seattle
+ (Chicago leads series, 3-2)
Day ...... Site/result ... Time
Game 1 ... Chicago, 107-90
Game 2 ... Chicago, 92-88
Game 3 ... Chicago, 108-86
Game 4 ... Seattle, 107-86
Game 5 ... Seattle, 9-78
Tonight at Chicago (-9) ... 7:30
Wednesday* at Chicago ..... 9
TV: All games on chs. 11, 4
Pub Date: 6/16/96