EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For two games in their opening-round series, the Chicago Bulls played just well enough to win. And for that, many perceived them to be vulnerable, possibly ripe for a loss to a pumped-up New Jersey Nets team playing in the postseason for the first time since 1994.
But there's one thing about the Bulls in the 1990s -- they are extremely proficient in putting away first-round opponents. In their five championship years, the Bulls have swept their first-round opponents, and last night Chicago completed a three-game sweep of the Nets with a 116-101 victory.
If this, indeed, was Michael Jordan's final game in the New York metropolitan area, he put on quite a show. Jordan scored 38 points for the Bulls, making some shots that left the usually vocal John Calipari, the Nets' coach, nearly speechless.
"You play him, it's like playing blackjack against the dealer -- and he's the dealer," said Calipari. "And I'm looking at Kerry [Kittles, the New Jersey guard checking Jordan] feeling bad, but what are you going to do."
Sound familiar? Those were nearly the same words used to describe Calbert Cheaney's aggressive defense in Game 2 of last year's opening-round series, a game in which Jordan hit 55 points with the Washington shooting guard draped over him.
There were times last night when Jordan's job was extremely easy, as he was left wide-open as New Jersey was slow on its defense rotations.
But in the second half there was a degree of difficulty to Jordan's baskets, as he scored with New Jersey defenders guarding him closely.
"I played against Michael for eight years, and I never saw him shoot the basketball like that," said Nets guard Kendall Gill, who had occasional assignments on Jordan. "It seems every time we made a run, he made a big shot."
If it wasn't Jordan making the big shot, it was Scott Burrell, who scored 23 points in 24 minutes off the bench. When New Jersey cut a 19-point deficit to 12 early in the fourth quarter the Bulls hit three straight three-pointers -- the first by Jordan, the last two by Burrell.
Jordan didn't just shoot the Nets out of the playoffs. He stared them down, too. Jordan turned and glared at the Nets' bench, focusing his gaze mainly on Calipari, at least a dozen times.
"Oh yeah, we noticed," one of the Nets' assistant coaches said.
It's not uncommon for NBA players to cast sideways glances at Calipari. Few of them are used to Calipari's antics, ranging from screaming at his players to making wild gestures of disbelief to yelling out every play at the top of his lungs.
Jordan's stare was different, a sort of in-your-face, dare-you-to-return-it gaze.
"I didn't stare back," Calipari said. "There is one thing I would never do as a coach -- say anything to Michael Jordan. Not one word. If he wants to stare at me, I'm not going to say anything to him."
Jordan explained it this way:
"I was really just looking at him, seeing how much energy he utilizes in coaching, try to pick up what he's saying.
"It's pretty fascinating, really. I haven't played against a guy who runs up and down the court as much as he does, yells and shows so much energy.
"I admire those players for being able to deal with it."
When Burrell's three-pointer with 8: 07 left fell through the net, Chicago had its biggest lead, 105-85. Burrell was 3-for-5 from beyond the arc.
"He hadn't shot the ball well all series," Gill said of Burrell. "And then he comes through with the two big dagger threes."
Normally, when a team looks at the final statistics and sees that it shot 60 percent, committed just 12 turnovers and scored over 100 points, it would feel good about itself. But all the Nets got for that effort last night was a blowout loss.
One major difference was Chicago's dominance on the boards, with Dennis Rodman grabbing 17 to lead a 35-21 edge. Rodman had just eight rebounds in the first game of the series, with Jayson Williams grabbing 21. Last night, Williams had 10, but five came in the fourth quarter when he recklessly began throwing his body around.
"The good thing about Game 1 was that Jayson Williams came and kicked Dennis' butt," Jordan said. "After that, I think Dennis came in with a lot more desire to show his talents."
And another big difference in the series -- and the game -- were the injuries that hit the Nets.
Keith Van Horn never fully recovered from the stomach flu, Williams was playing the series after missing a month with a broken thump, and Sam Cassell watched the second half in street clothes last night after his injured groin muscle gave out in the second quarter.
With all those problems, the Nets still played the Bulls tough for two games.
"We never saw a full, healthy New Jersey Nets team," Jordan admitted. "Sam Cassell can make the game totally different if he's healthy, and he wasn't healthy."
And so the Bulls capitalized, winning their 11th straight first-round game and 27th in their last 29 dating to 1990. Chicago has swept first-round series in seven of the past nine years.
And keep this statistic in mind come June: Since the NBA went to its current format of best-of-five first-round series, the eventual champion had swept its opening series.
In this year's playoffs, the Bulls are the only team to accomplish that.
"It's our opportunity to win the series early and send a message to everybody," coach Phil Jackson said. "We want to defend our title and we want to do it in the correct manner. This is the way to do it."
Pub Date: 4/30/98