Hornets steal one from Bulls, 78-76 Controlling Jordan, Charlotte ties series


CHICAGO -- After an embarrassing opening-game loss, many wondered aloud whether the Charlotte Hornets even deserved to be on the same court as the defending NBA-champion Chicago Bulls.

"People don't like to get embarrassed," Charlotte coach Dave Cowens said. "You want to win. And if someone says you're not up to the task, you're not in somebody's league, it makes your want to prove to them that they're wrong."

The proof is winning and the Hornets, despite looking awful for three quarters last night, did just that in a 78-76 win over the Bulls that evened the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series at one game apiece. Games 3 and 4 will be in Charlotte.

For the second straight game Charlotte didn't play particularly well on offense, although former reserve guards Dell Curry and B.J. Armstrong were keys in the team's 29-point offensive burst in the fourth quarter.

Where the Hornets won this game was on defense, particularly with an adjustment made by Cowens after watching Michael Jordan score 35 points in Game 1.

What the Hornets did most of the night was switch forward Anthony Mason on Jordan, which created mismatches elsewhere. That move worked to near perfection in the second half when Jordan was scoreless until there were under five minute left in the game.

Jordan scored eight points in the final five minutes and finished with 22 -- the first time he's been held below 32 points this off-season.

"The purpose of Mason on me is to eliminate the post-up -- it's hard for me to post Mason. I can't get the post position," Jordan said. "But I never have a problem breaking him down. But [coach Phil Jackson] doesn't want to rely on that. He wants to keep everyone involved."

When the Bulls ran isolation plays for Jordan over the final five minutes, he had no problem getting to the basket. But by then it was too late.

Charlotte, after scoring 49 points through three quarters (but trailing by just 57-49), went on a 13-2 run midway through the fourth with Armstrong and Curry combining for 11.

Curry, who spend most of Game 1 unsuccessfully chasing Jordan, pulled the Hornets to within 63-62 with a three-pointer with 6: 46 left. His 19-foot shot 33 seconds later gave the Hornets the lead for good, 64-63.

Curry was close to not having a chance at the late heroics. With Charlotte down by four early in the fourth, Cowens sent Bobby Phills to the scorer's table to replace Curry. Then Curry made a steal, hit two free throws and Cowens changed his mind. Curry wound up scoring 13 of his 15 in the fourth.

But the play of Armstrong, who played six years with the Bulls, including the first three title teams of the 1990s, was just as crucial.

There were moments in the fourth quarter when Armstrong was defending, or being defended by, Jordan. He never backed down, and may even have played more physical despite giving up four inches and 30 pounds to his former teammate. And he was unafraid to shoot the ball, hitting two big jumpers in the fourth, when he scored eight of his 10 points.

"When you play in the playoffs, the intensity is at a higher level," said Armstrong, who averaged just 12 minutes a game during the regular season. "I just wanted to go out there and meet the intensity and level of play that's necessary to win in a hostile environment."

In defeat the Bulls have lost their first game of this year's playoffs, and their home-court advantage. But if there was any worry, it wasn't noticeable.

"It's not embarrassing; it happens," Jordan said. "It's disappointing we allowed ourselves to walk down this alley.

"With this loss, the ante's raised a little bit," Jordan added. "I think we focus more on the road."

Pub Date: 5/07/98

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