It's Round 2 for Bulls, Jazz Chicago in unusual role of underdog heading into Finals opener tonight


SALT LAKE CITY -- They have dominated the 1990s, winning five NBA titles. They boast two of the best players in basketball, including one whom many call the greatest player ever. Yet the Chicago Bulls believe that when the NBA Finals start tonight against the Utah Jazz, they will be in an unfamiliar role as underdogs.

And you know what? There are not many people who would argue. The Bulls, just three days after barely escaping the Eastern Conference finals, go into Game 1 against a Utah team that has been resting for nine days.

The Bulls enter the series lacking the home-court advantage (the teams had identical regular-season records, but Utah swept Chicago in the regular season). and have had little rest after a grueling, seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers that ended Sunday.

Still, even though Michael Jordan said the team has lost a lot of its swagger, Chicago goes into the series confident it can come away with its sixth NBA title.

"Yes, I consider us to be underdogs," Jordan said during a news conference shortly after the Bulls arrived in Salt Lake City yesterday afternoon. "But I still consider us to be champions. They have to take it away from us, no matter what other people predict."

And the Jazz would like nothing better than to yank the title away from the team that beat it for the title in six hard-fought games a year ago. The difference this year? The Jazz is no longer in awe of its surroundings, as the team was in playing in the NBA Finals for the first time. And the Jazz is the first repeat team Chicago has had to face in the finals.

"We're more relaxed," said Utah reserve guard Chris Morris. "It's not like last year, where we were caught up in the hoopla, just happy that we had made it. We're confident. We feel Chicago can be beaten if we play our game right and play smart."

A big concern going into tonight's game is the long layoff for the Jazz, which last played on May 24 in completing a surprisingly easy four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. The long break has allowed some of the Utah players to heal nagging injuries, although the layoff has created a bit of anxiousness.

"I'm tired of sitting. I can't take another practice," said Utah center Greg Foster. "I'm ready to go."

The Jazz's long layoff has Chicago believing it can steal tonight's game and take away Utah's home-court advantage.

"We feel like we've been on the court and our intensity level is up," said the Bulls' Scottie Pippen. "I feel good about this team. Although they have home-court advantage, we feel this is our time to go out and prove we can win without home-court advantage."

But winning for Chicago means having to overcome more than the home-court disadvantage. It will mean having to beat a team that has played the best basketball in the league over the last half of the season and has the hunger for a title.

John Stockton has 141 playoff games, the most ever by a player who has never won a championship. Karl Malone has played in 131, the third-most ever. The two veterans realize they may not get another chance, and would like to seize the moment.

"I don't want to be greedy, I just want one [title]," Malone said. "I don't want three, four, five or even two. I just want one. Hopefully, we can take care of business."

History is on the side of Utah. Since the Boston Celtics defeated the Lakers in the 1968 and 1969 finals, there have five occasions when the same teams have played for the championship in back-to-back seasons. And on all five occasions since 1969, the team that lost the championship the first year came back to win it the second.

Should that trend continue, that would mean the end of the Bulls' dynasty. And with the expected breakup of the team, that could mean the end of Jordan's storied career.

Jordan talks as if he knows the Bulls are about to embark on their toughest championship journey. Still, he seems confident -- even if the old swagger isn't evident.

"They're going to play us hard. They're going to pound at us at our weak points," Jordan said. "But no one's taken anything away from us so far. We still have what we have, and we still have an opportunity to maintain it.

"Certainly, it's a great team we're about to play against. But you look at our record. We haven't lost in the finals. That's a great confidence to have. We're here. Now, let's just go and do the job."

NBA Finals

(Best of seven; line in parentheses)

Chicago vs. Utah

TV: All games chs. 11, 4

Today--at Utah (-3 1/2 ), 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

Pub Date: 6/03/98

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