Ron Harper's status for Game 6 of the NBA Finals is "questionable," which also would be a good word to describe the Chicago Bulls' place in history.
Suddenly, there's a possibility that the team might live in infamy as the first to blow a 3-0 series lead. Just a few days - and two losses - ago, a waiting world was searching for adjectives to describe the supposed team of the ages.The Bulls aren't claiming Harper's sore left knee is the primary reason they've failed to finish off the Seattle SuperSonics. But it seems they didn't truly understand what they had in Harper until they no longer had him.
Chicago's "other guard" - the guy whose basic offensive assignment is to stay out of Michael Jordan's way - played only 15 minutes total in the three games at Seattle. The Bulls lost the last two, ensuring that the best-of-7 series will return to Chicago for Game 6 on Sunday night.
"Ron gives us a big defender, a player who moves without the ball on offense," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said after Friday's 89-78 loss in Seattle. "I think our guys ran out of gas from Harp not being out there to relieve some of the pressure on defense."
Gary Payton, an All-Star who averaged 19 points this season, scored only 13 in each of the first two games. In addition to hounding Payton, Harper scored 15 and 12 points after averaging just seven during the season.
But with Harper limited to 1, 13 and 1 minute the last three games, Payton scored 19, 21 and 23 points. Payton also had more freedom to create plays and set up his teammates.
Chicago still won Game 3 in Seattle, and the only question seemed to be if a 72-10 regular season followed by a 15-1 postseason made the Bulls a lock for best-team-ever status.
But in Games 4 and 5, the Bulls looked confused and hesitant. They missed Harper's defensive presence, scoring threat and steadying influence.
"He gives us a lift defensively as well as offensively," Jordan said. "Without him, that means we have to play myself on Payton."
Jordan played Payton tough Friday, holding him to 7-of-18 shooting. But after scoring 24 points on 10-for-18 from the field in the first three quarters, a tired Jordan had just two points and missed three of his four shots in the fourth. He got no help from his teammates, as the Bulls shot 38 percent for the game, including 3-for-26 from 3-point range.
"Ron had an MRI and it was essentially normal for a guy who's been in the league 10 years," trainer Chip Schaefer said. "But for some reason, after a certain number of minutes, his pain increases and he loses the ability to push off and have explosive power in his leg."