The script called for Michael Jordan to lead the Chicago Bulls on a miraculous comeback. Somebody forgot to tell the Denver Nuggets.
"We never gave up and held our composure at the end. That's the best we can play," said Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who scored 32 points to lead Denver to a 105-99 victory that snapped the Bulls' 18-game winning streak.The Nuggets, who have 22 fewer victories than the 41-4 Bulls, built a 31-point first-half lead only to see Chicago come storming back behind Jordan - who else? - in the third and fourth quarters.
Jordan scored 22 of his 39 points in the third quarter, and by the time Scottie Pippen completed a three-point play to open the fourth quarter, the Bulls were on top, 85-84, for the first time since Bill Wennington made the game's first basket.
But the Nuggets stayed calm down the stretch to hand the Bulls their first loss since a Dec. 26 defeat at Indiana. It also brought back memories of Denver's stunning Game 5 victory over the Seattle SuperSonics in the opening round of the 1993-94 playoffs.
"This win ranks with Seattle because of what Chicago is doing this year," Abdul-Rauf said. "They've only lost four games this year, and we were one of them."
Abdul-Rauf came out firing in the first half, scoring 13 points during a six-minute stretch as Denver opened a 66-35 lead with 3:05 left in the second quarter.
The Bulls began their comeback, narrowing the margin to 25 points at the half.
"They play so many styles of basketball that we had to figure out how to counter what they were doing," Jordan said. "By the time we did that, we were way out of our system."
Jordan, who had his 25th 30-plus-point game, took matters into his own hands to start the third quarter. He scored 10 of Chicago's first 14 points, hitting a 3-pointer, three free throws, a driving layup and a baseline slam that had the crowd switching alliances with every play.
"That's one of those situations where I felt I had the opportunity and I tried to use my offensive capabilities to get the team sparking," Jordan said. "But they controlled everything down the stretch, which is a really unusual situation for us."
The NBA does not have statistics on the biggest comebacks in league history. However, the Elias Sports Bureau, now the official record keeper for the NBA, said a Bulls victory would have meant the biggest comeback from a halftime deficit since March 25, 1988, when Philadelphia overcame a 27-point hole against Boston.
"Not many teams can come back from 31 points and almost win," said Chicago forward Dennis Rodman, who was outrebounded 17-12 by Denver's Dikembe Mutombo.
"I expected us to lose sometime, but I feel bad because we played bad," Rodman said. "That team is not that good. I'm not going to give that team any credit at all."
Credit or not, the Nuggets (19-26) are the first sub-.500 team to beat the Bulls, who had won nine straight road games en route to the best start in NBA history.
"We know what losing is. We just don't want to experience it that much," Jordan said. "You experience it and you go on from there.
"We'll get back on track."
Chicago coach Phil Jackson immediately put the loss behind him.
"It was a wonderful run, a terrific run," Jackson said. "I told our guys, let's get two, three, four, five, and get started down the path to another streak."
Magic 122, Spurs 109
Shaquille O'Neal, a 45 percent foul shooter, made five straight free throws in the final 3:03 of regulation and then sparked Orlando in overtime. The Magic improved to 24-0 at home this season.
O'Neal had 26 points and 12 rebounds. Orlando beat San Antonio for only the second time in eight games since O'Neal entered the NBA four years ago.
Nick Anderson scored 33 points and Horace Grant had 21 points and 15 rebounds for the Magic. David Robinson had 36 points and 11 rebounds for the Spurs.
Pacers 90, Knicks 83
At Indianapolis, Derrick McKey scored 21 points as the Pacers extended their home winning streak to 17. New York, averaging 47 percent from the field this season, made only six of 19 shots in the second quarter and fell behind 46-36 at halftime. The Knicks never drew closer than seven points again until John Starks hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Patrick Ewing had 22 points and 13 rebounds for the Knicks.
Suns 123, Bullets 115, OT
At Landover, Md., Charles Barkley had 31 points and 15 rebounds and Kevin Johnson scored nine of his 23 points in overtime as road-weary Phoenix beat Washington. Danny Manning, playing his second game since returning from knee surgery, came off the bench and scored 22 points in 25 minutes as the Suns concluded an eight-game road trip with a 5-3 record.
Hawks 106, Hornets 104
At Atlanta, Steve Smith scored 30 points and Grant Long put the Hawks ahead to stay on a three-point play with 1:03 remaining. The victory snapped Atlanta's three-game losing streak. The Hawks trailed nearly the entire game and was down by 14 late in the third quarter. But 3-pointers - one aided by a rare basket interference call - and Long's three-point play helped the Hawks win for the first time since their 10-game victory streak ended last week. Larry Johnson led the Hornets with 27 points.
Warriors 96, Nets 92
Latrell Sprewell had 22 points and B.J. Armstrong had a season-high 12 assists as Golden State pulled away at home.
The game was tied at 81 when the Warriors went on a 13-2 run during a five-minute span.
Rony Seikaly added 19 points and Joe Smith had 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Warriors. Armon Gilliam had 24 points and Shawn Bradley had 21 points and 13 rebounds for New Jersey.