It's finally here.
Shaq, Penny and Horace vs. Michael, Scottie and the Worm. Repeat vs. Revenge. Team of the Future vs. Team of the Past, with each trying to prove it is the Team of the Present.It's the Orlando Magic vs. the Chicago Bulls, with the winner going to the NBA Finals. Game 1 of the best-of-7 series is this afternoon.
"People have been saying all year long that this would be the matchup in the Eastern Conference finals, and it turns out they were right," Chicago's Steve Kerr said Saturday. "But you just can't let yourself get caught up in the hype. It's still basketball. Whoever plays better will win. We're not fighting for world peace . . . though you'd be hard-pressed to dispute that."
World peace isn't at stake, but - sorry Seattle and Utah - players for both teams feel an NBA championship is.
"This is what everybody's been waiting for," Michael Jordan said.
"It's going to be just like the Finals," Penny Hardaway said. "It'll be a big test for us, and I think it'll be a big test for those guys because they respect us the same amount as we respect them."
The Bulls, who lost to Orlando in the second round of last year's playoffs, have given the Magic the ultimate show of respect.
"From the time the season was over last year," Chicago coach Phil Jackson said, "we generated our personnel toward the fact that Orlando would be the team in the running next year. This is next year. This is the time we set up for."
The Bulls acquired Dennis Rodman to battle Horace Grant. They let B.J. Armstrong go in the expansion draft, putting Ron Harper next to Jordan in the backcourt and giving Chicago two big guards to contend with Hardaway and Nick Anderson. And they've fortified their middle - with quantity if not quality - and now have four centers to throw at Shaquille O'Neal.