CHICAGO -- It began with the possibility that it might be the end of an era, a closure to the great championship run of the Chicago Bulls as well as Michael Jordan's final game. But in the end, Jordan proved to be a man of his word by giving the Bulls a shot at their sixth title this decade.
Playing against an Indiana Pacers team in an Eastern Conference finals that Scottie Pippen described as "the toughest series of my career," the Bulls were able to avoid elimination with a tremendous effort on the offensive boards in a hard-fought 88-83 win last night at the United Center. The Bulls won the series, 4-3, and earned the right to defend their title beginning Wednesday against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City.
The Bulls have little chance to rest going into the NBA Finals, against a Utah team that swept its Western Conference finals series and has been resting for nine days.
That's because the Bulls got a tougher series than anticipated against the Pacers, especially after Indiana lost the first two games here. Each team won on its home court, which may have been the biggest factor of the series.
"I have a lot of respect for Indiana," Pippen said. "I can say the best team won, but they gave us a lot. They made us work. Even though we pulled away with a win, I think both teams deserved to get to the Finals."
But only the Bulls will go, winning despite being outshot for the game, 48.2 percent to 38.2 percent.
Chicago won this game on the offensive glass, where the Bulls had a 22-4 edge -- and a 50-34 overall rebounding edge. The Bulls were quicker to the ball the entire game, and the 22 offensive rebounds allowed the Bulls to take 20 more shots than Indiana (76 attempts to 56). The Bulls' 24 second-chance points -- to Indiana's three -- was the difference.
"We definitely got the effort, but we got beat to a lot of loose balls and it seems like the little things beat us," said Larry Bird, completing his first season as Indiana coach. "We're not a great rebounding team on the offensive boards, and we were overmatched. It seemed like they were quicker to the ball. They got a couple of offensive rebounds that ripped our hearts out."
Chicago had six offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter, which resulted in seven points. Two fourth-quarter offensive rebounds by Pippen probably saved the game for Chicago.
The first came after Pacers had taken a 77-74 lead after Antonio Davis made one of two free throws with just under seven minutes left. On Chicago's next possession, Jordan missed a 17-foot jumper but Reggie Miller -- despite having position -- was out-hustled to the ball by Pippen, who fed Steve Kerr for a three-pointer that tied the game at 77 with 6: 02 left.
A short time later Luc Longley missed a short jumper, which was retrieved by Pippen. And despite struggling through a 6-for-18 shooting night, Pippen hit an 18-foot-jumper with 4: 45 left that gave the Bulls the lead for good, 81-79.
Pippen had the biggest impact on the game despite his shooting problems. The 6-foot-7 forward had 17 points and 12 rebounds, while also playing stellar defense.
"Scottie gave us a great effort on the boards, and he moved the ball to the open people and that was important to us in this game," said Bulls coach Phil Jackson. "It was the boards that was the difference in the game, the number of possessions we needed to force the ball into the hole."
It was a tough shooting night for the Bulls (they also shot 58.5 percent from the line), particularly for Jordan, who made just nine of 25 attempts. Jordan did finish with 28 points, nine rebounds (five offensive) and eight assists. As he misfired on the perimeter, Jordan, who became the all-time NBA playoff scoring leader, took a different approach -- he drove to the basket. Jordan shot seven free throws in the fourth quarter, making seven.
"That's why he's the best player in the league, and why he's probably the greatest player ever," Bird said. "He played a solid all-around game."
Pippen and Jordan got a lot of help in the win. Toni Kukoc scored 21 points, 14 coming in the third quarter when he hit all five of his attempts -- including three three-pointers. Kerr scored 11 points off the bench -- including the big three-pointer in the fourth -- and Jud Buechler grabbed five rebounds in 11 minutes.
For the Pacers, the bench did not play as much of a role as it did during the three wins in Indianapolis. Antonio Davis fouled out in just 22 minutes, and Travis Best struggled offensively and was eventually lifted in the fourth quarter.
"He wasn't really getting us into our offense," said Bird of his decision to lift Best for Mark Jackson.
Also not getting into the offense was Miller, who, while scoring 22 points, took just one shot in the fourth quarter. That shot was an air ball, leaving Miller totally ineffective at a time when his team needed him most.
That was not the case with Jordan who, despite his shooting problems, still had an impact. And in the end Jordan could breathe a sigh of relief, having come out after Friday's Game 6 loss and told everyone the Bulls would win.
"At no point in time did I ever think negative," said Jordan, when asked if he thought last night could be the final game of the Bulls' dynasty, and perhaps his career. "I always keep positive thoughts in my mind. We had to work extra hard to get it, but there was never a doubt."
Chicago vs. Utah
(Best of seven)
Wednesday: at Utah, 9 p.m.
Friday: at Utah, 9 p.m.
Sunday: at Chicago, 7: 30 p.m.
June 10: at Chicago, 9 p.m.
June 12: at Chicago, 9 p.m.*
June 14: at Utah, 7: 30 p.m.*
June 17: at Utah, 9 p.m.*
* -- if necessary
(All games on chs. 11, 4)
Pub Date: 6/01/98