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They’ll deny it, but Bulls likely began thinking ahead too early

SHARE They’ll deny it, but Bulls likely began thinking ahead too early

This wasn't supposed to happen.

Didn't Utah see the script?Chicago was all set to celebrate its sixth NBA championship - the champagne was chilling and the confetti was ready - before Utah rewrote what was to be a fitting end to the final running of the Bulls. Karl Malone's 39-point delivery lifted the Jazz to an 83-81 victory in the United Center to extend the NBA Finals to a sixth game.

"I would have loved to win it at home," Michael Jordan said after what may have been his final home game. "That would be a great scenario, but it didn't happen."

To the dismay of himself, Jordan missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have provided a dramatic prelude to a celebration.

Bulls coach Phil Jackson said a lot of things they tried to do were difficult for them. The troubles, he said, started before the Bulls even reached the arena. The culprit? Traffic. Jackson said a two-hour commute set a frustrating tone. The Bulls recovered enough, however, to hold a 36-30 halftime lead.

Though Jackson denies it, Chicago may have started thinking ahead. The Bulls were just 24 minutes away from that sixth championship, a repeat of a three-peat if you will. The city had a celebration planned for Monday at Grant Park; plastic was in place to protect the Bulls' lockers from champagne spray; and folks paid scalpers as much as $10,000 for a ticket to the big party.

"I think it was just a lot of distractions that sort of took our focus away from what we had to do tonight," Scottie Pippen said. The Bulls forward was on his way to series MVP honors before a 2-of-16 shooting performance in Game 5. "It was a disappointment. The way I played and the way we played as a team."

Chicago got blindsided in the second half. After holding Utah to less than 20 points in nine of 11 quarters, the Bulls' defensive stranglehold was loosened by a pair of guys nicknamed "Mailman" and "Big Dawg." The duo scored 37 points in the second half when Utah outscored Chicago 53-45.

"They finally found someone off the bench that could give them a lift," Jackson said of Carr's 12-point contribution. "He was really the difference in the ball game."

While Utah's offense found answers, Chicago's future remains in question.

Was this the final running of the Bulls in the United Center? Will Michael Jordan retire? Is Scottie Pippen serious about pursuing free agency and not returning to Chicago? And what about Jackson?

Despite rumors to the contrary, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said he wants to bring the team back if it wins the championship. He acknowledges, however, that the situation is not totally in his hands. Each free agent must determine what's best for them.

"I, for one, don't want to be the one who breaks up the Chicago Bulls as long as they're winning championships," said Reinsdorf.

The offseason in Chicago could be as difficult as it was in Game 5. The Jazz, as head coach Jerry Sloan suggested, wanted to ruin a party or two. And they did.

The Jazz were well on their way to doing so early when they jumped out to a 14-8 advantage. Toni Kukoc single-handedly accounted for Chicago's points while his teammates combined to miss all eights shots they attempted. Utah turnovers, however, eventually put the Bulls back in contention.

Kukoc teamed with Jordan, who didn't score until he made a free throw with 3:20 remaining, for nine points as the Bulls streaked to a 16-14 advantage.

Chicago remained in front as Kukoc went 7-for-7 from the field in the first half. He led all scorers at the intermission with 17 points. Jordan had 13 and Pippen just four as the Bulls held a 36-30 advantage. Both teams shot 38.9 percent from the field in the first half, but the Jazz were hampered 13 turnovers.

Whatever Utah discovered at halftime should be bottled up and sold for profit. The Jazz turned the ball over only twice and shot 71 percent from the field in the third quarter to erase the deficit.