Clearly, it should have been Michael Time. This is where we left off last spring, right? Isn't this where Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are increasing the pressure, the Jazz hoping to hang on, and suddenly it's all over but the body count?
But a strange thing happened on the way to a comeback victory by the Bulls, Wednesday in Game 1 of the NBA Finals: They lost. It was close, intense, riveting. But that's where the trouble came in. The Bulls botched the final scene. The Jazz tore the last page from the book, winning 88-85.Now the Bulls face Friday's Game 2 at the Delta Center with a problem. Traditionally, they have toyed with opponents, then at just the right moment they get out the dagger. It's worked well enough to give them five NBA titles in the '90s. Now they're trailing 1-0 in the best-of-seven series and their time-tested plan isn't working. It failed even though Jeff Hornacek made just two of 10 shots and Karl Malone missed 13 of his first 17 on Wednesday. It didn't even work when Jordan got the ball in overtime. This time there was no material for MJ's Greatest Hits collection. It was just a game in which the Jazz decided the outcome by their depth and attitude.
"We're a team that runs with opportunities," said Karl Malone.
That the Jazz would win the Finals opener wasn't all that big a surprise. After 10 days of rest, their timing wasn't up to speed. Still, they had enough energy to launch a space shuttle. They went after loose balls with abandon. They took down most of the long rebounds. At times they even got under Jordan's skin. For the Bulls, some of their worst concerns were realized. Their team is aging, their bench relatively shallow. They had neither the youth nor depth to run with the Jazz. And so when Howard Eisley faked and spun on Jordan, then sank a midrange jumper, the crowd gasped with delight. Eisley had made Jordan look bad. He hadn't just challenged the king, he'd embarrassed him.
Though Jordan later blocked an Eisley shot, it was obvious the Jazz had too much youth, depth and energy. They out-hustled the Bulls down the stretch. In the late game, each time the Jazz got a defensive rebound, coach Jerry Sloan flailed his arms, trying to get his team to rush the ball upcourt.
With a cast of thousands to choose from, Sloan can go with some of the strangest combinations imaginable. In the early second quarter he chose Antoine Carr, Shandon Anderson, Chris Morris, Bryon Russell and Howard Eisley as his lineup - not a future Hall of Famer in the bunch. In fact, there's not an All-Star in the bunch. The only starter was Russell - and he didn't get the job until the playoffs. They played Eisley 23 minutes, Morris 20, Anderson 16 and Carr 13. Greg Ostertag came in for 17 minutes.
As was their plan, the Jazz simply ran people at the Bulls until they wore them down. They gave the Bulls the combination platter. Like a Chicago Dog with everything on it, the Jazz were hard to contain. Being Sloan has got to be fun. He can close his eyes, point toward the bench and someone comes along to help. The Jazz bench outscored Chicago's 22-8. Malone made only nine of 25 shots and didn't get in a rhythm until the end. Hornacek had only two crazy layups to his credit and Greg Foster went 1-5. You would think it's a formula for disaster. Instead, the Jazz took it with a shrug.
"In the past when maybe I didn't have a great game, we didn't win that game," said Malone. "But here, in the playoffs, when I hadn't played well, we still managed to win. And that's really neat to see when you're trying to win a championship."
Late in the contest the Bulls made an impressive try, sending it into overtime. But Jordan made only one of two free throws, missed a driving shot and was whistled for a 24-second violation. Scottie Pippen missed the first shot of the overtime and a desperation shot at the buzzer. Still, between them they scored 54 of the team's 85 points. It wasn't enough.
Thus, on a night when Malone struggled, and Hornacek was even worse, the Jazz didn't blink. They just kept people coming in waves. The Bulls know they can win Game 2, but they'll need more manpower to stay with the Jazz. They know that when you're playing the Jazz, you need Pippen, Jordan - and maybe a couple dozen close personal friends.