CHICAGO -- He's listed among the NBA's greatest 50 players, and yet Scottie Pippen's stardom often comes with an asterisk attached. Through his career with the Chicago Bulls, he has had questions asked about his toughness, about his attitude and about whether he would even be considered among the game's greats had he not performed alongside perhaps the best player ever.
Yet ask Michael Jordan about Pippen and, without hesitation, Jordan will boast extensively about a sidekick he referred to yesterday as being like a "twin brother."
"The first time I came to Chicago, I didn't have that kind of person beside me," Jordan said. "Ever since he's been here, it's made it a lot easier for me."
You can look it up. Jordan was a thrill-a-minute scoring machine, and yet in his first three years in the league the Bulls failed to achieve a winning record. Since Pippen's arrival in 1987, Chicago has had 11 straight winning seasons, and the two have developed into the best duo in the league.
Perhaps the most versatile player in the game, who is able to make his mark as a scorer, rebounder or passer, Pippen is standing out this postseason as a defender -- no surprise for an eight-time member of the all-NBA defensive team.
It was his ability to play the role of a "floater" defensively that set the tone for Sunday's 96-54 win over the Utah Jazz that gave Chicago a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
What the 6-foot-7, 228-pound Pippen did on Sunday was basically become a free-lance defender, often leaving his man to work against Jazz guards John Stockton and Howard Eisley as soon as they crossed half court.
That forced Stockton or Eisley to pick up their dribble, disrupting the Utah offense. The result was that Stockton, one of the greatest point guards in league history, played like an indecisive rookie, turning the ball over five times and scoring just two points as the Jazz produced the lowest-scoring effort in the NBA's shot-clock era.
"He sets the tone," Jordan said. "The more active Scottie Pippen is, the better we are. He can disrupt anybody's offensive because of his ability to play many people."
Indeed, there are nights on which Pippen is able to guard any position on the court. In the Eastern Conference finals, he forced the Indiana Pacers to change their offensive philosophy with his defense of Mark Jackson. And when Pippen was "floating" Sunday, he was often defending the Utah centers.
"Scottie's very athletic, very talented and recovers quickly," said Utah forward Karl Malone who, while ornery yesterday, took time to praise Pippen. "He could be the best defensive player playing."
Or one of the best ever, according to Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay.
"I can't think of anybody as good, and there were some great defenders," Ramsay added. "He's the best. He's long, he has a great wingspan, great foot quickness, foot speed and elevation. He has the heart to take a charge from whomever, and he's unbelievable in recovering from help position to run at a shooter. He's amazing."
But was Pippen's defense legal Sunday? It was close to being legal, but the usually wise Utah players didn't demonstrate the ,, patience to exploit it.
"If he's going to come off his man, he needs to come all the way to double or it's illegal, but we didn't give him a chance to do that," Stockton said. "As soon as he crossed over, we went and did something too quickly and didn't expose the illegal defense."
Pippen's the first to acknowledge that his focus on defense during this postseason has had an effect on his offense (he scored 10 points Sunday). But even the man who once rebelled during the closing seconds of a playoff game because the final play wasn't run for him, has demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice for his team during a time in which many players play simply for statistics.
"I think it's kind of difficult for me to go out and compete with some of the teammates," Pippen said. "We all know Michael's a great scorer, so I don't think I should put that on my back to come out and try to be a better scorer than he is. I feel there are some areas of the game that I can focus on to help this team be successful."
And it's likely that Pippen might try to make another team successful, as he becomes a free agent after this season. Unhappy that the Bulls refused to rip up his soon-to-expire eight-year deal and pay him according to current market value, Pippen -- who will make $2.5 million this year -- is likely to leave.
"It's something I've waited for the last three or four years," Pippen said of the looming free agency. "I look forward to going out and exploring my free agency to the fullest."
And his possible departure would likely lead to the demise of the Bulls, as Jordan probably won't return if forced to play without a capable companion.
"Scottie takes a lot of pressure off me offensively and defensively because he can do so many things," Jordan said. "His confidence is just as strong as mine, and his competitiveness is just as strong, as well."
NOTES: Bulls forward Dennis Rodman was fined $10,000 for skipping practice and yesterday's media availability session. "It's the wrong time of the season to take the focus away from what we're trying to accomplish, but we've always let Dennis have his way," Pippen said. "We're used to it." Rodman attended a wrestling match with Hulk Hogan last night in Auburn Hills, Mich. He declined to talk to a reporter.
Chicago vs. Utah
(Chicago leads, 2-1)
Game 1 .. .. Utah, 88-85, OT
Game 2 .. .. Chicago, 93-88
Game 3 .. .. Chicago, 96-54
Tomorrow ... at Chicago 9 p.m.
Friday .. .. at Chicago 9 p.m.
June 14 . .. at Utah 7: 30 p.m.*
June 17 . .. at Utah 9 p.m.*
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Pub Date: 6/09/98