CHICAGO -- Everyone thought the NBA Finals were over.
The Chicago Bulls did, even though they would never admit it.
The Bulls' fans certainly did. They were more concerned about the historical significance of Game 5 than the Utah Jazz.
A local TV station was running "Celebrate with Dignity" commercials during last night's game.
Hey, the Jazz players themselves probably thought the series was over in the first half last night at the United Center, as the Bulls pulled ahead in a physical, sloppy game.
Not only is the series not over, it has taken a wicked and unexpected turn in the wake of Utah's 83-81 win.
The Bulls couldn't close out the Jazz at home, so now they have to do it on the road -- in front of one of the NBA's loudest crowds, no less.
A coronation has become a confrontation.
Don't think the Jazz isn't capable of winning the next two games and denying the Bulls
their sixth title of the 1990s.
After last night's surprise, anything is possible.
Give the Jazz credit for being mentally tough and not bagging the series when all the world seemed against them.
And the Bulls? Give them a debit for committing a sporting sin well beneath them -- starting to celebrate too soon.
Is there any doubt that the Bulls were thinking ahead to their victory speeches as they stumbled through a sloppy, distracted performance?
Michael Jordan all but admitted it after the game.
"Did you have to cancel a [golf] tee time for [today]?" a reporter asked.
"No, I didn't have a tee time," he said with a sheepish grin. "I anticipated drinking so much champagne that I wouldn't want to play [golf]."
Jordan, who had said he regarded this as possibly the last game of his career, missed 17 of 26 shots and finished with an air ball at the buzzer.
Got another game to play, Mike.
And as lukewarm as Jordan was, he was better than Scottie Pippen, who missed 14 of 16 shots.
Aside from Toni Kukoc, who carried Chicago offensively with 30 points and strong outside shooting, the Bulls made just 18 of 62 shots.
And Kukoc took only 13 shots, far fewer than he should have taken on a night when he was the only hot Bull.
"It was a bad day at the office," Jordan said. "Like getting beat by 42. You just have to let it go. It's one loss. You don't want it to become two."
It could become two if the Jazz gets another big performance from Karl Malone, who scored 39 points, including 25 in the second half.
It was the first big game of the series for Malone, who had failed to deliver in the first four games.
"We were very fearful of that happening," Pippen said of %J Malone's awakening. "We knew that sooner or later he'd step out with a big game."
After another tough night in Game 4, Malone said he spent Thursday driving around with an Illinois state trooper, weighing trucks.
"I just got away, didn't read anything," he said. "I realized a lot of the stuff that was being said. Sometimes you don't play the games you want when you want. I just tried to be ready today."
Another key contributor for Utah was veteran Antoine Carr, whom Jazz coach Jerry Sloan put in the lineup to start the second half.
It was the game's key strategic move.
Carr responded with 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting and nailed three big jumpers down the stretch in the fourth quarter, when the Jazz was hanging on.
The Bulls had struggled to a 36-30 lead at halftime after two quarters of physical, mistake-prone basketball. At one point early in the second quarter, the teams had combined for 17 baskets and 18 turnovers.
"It was like two heavyweights out there feeling each other out," Malone said.
The Jazz came out for the third quarter with a renewed sense of purpose. That purpose? Get the ball to Malone.
The Jazz jumped on his back and took off.
"Karl was absolutely sensational," Sloan said. "We have done that before, just given him the ball and gotten out of the way."
Malone scored almost as many points as the Bulls in the third quarter -- he had 17, they had 19 -- and the Jazz had a four-point lead by the end of the quarter.
They hit 14 of their first 18 shots in the second half, building a 68-60 lead with 8: 53 to go.
The Bulls rallied, as you figured they would. Steve Kerr hit a three-pointer and Jordan hit a jumper. The margin was two when Jordan hit two free throws with 1: 13 left, then two again after two free throws by Kukoc with 18.9 seconds left.
Down by two with 0.8 of a second left, the Bulls got the ball to Jordan, whose three-pointer missed the rim.
"We stood our ground a little more tonight," Sloan said. "When you do that, you command a little more respect. I think that's what happened tonight."
As the home crowd filed quietly out of the United Center, having gotten a far different show than what they had expected, it was certainly true that the Jazz had earned more respect.
And the Finals? Sorry, not over. Not at all.
Pub Date: 6/13/98