Friday, March 5, 2010

Running Of The Bulls

The 1995-’96 Chicago Bulls are justifiably lauded as one of the all-time great teams, and in the popular imagination Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman seamlessly meld their talents while steamrolling to a 72-10 record.

Of course, that was hardly the case in a grueling 82-game season. Inevitably, there were victories that needed to be pounded out. Like, say, a mid-March game against the New Jersey Nets at The Meadowlands.

The Bulls (56-7) had their sights trained on the Los Angeles Lakers’ 69-13 mark, but were playing the second game of a back-to-back and Pippen was out while nursing a hodgepodge of late-season injuries (knee, ankle, back). Jordan had assumed an even greater majority of the scoring load. He had scored 30 or more points in 39 games already that season, but was logging heavy minutes.

Even more inexplicable than seeing a sold-out Meadowlands was watching Nets rookie Ed O’Bannon try to keep Jordan in check at the start of the game. Jordan kept getting the former UCLA star to overplay him, leading to easy backdoor cuts and layups. Jordan scored the Bulls’ first nine points and 12 of their first 14. That probably prompted O’Bannon to think about getting into a new line of work, such as selling cars or being the focal point of a major law suit against the NCAA.

Still, the Nets hung around, mostly due to the textbook pick-and-rolls directed by point guard Chris Childs, a newly appointed starter after the trade of Kenny Anderson. After a great feed from Childs to Armen Gilliam for a layup, Rodman was so frustrated with the lack of weakside help from Luc Longley that the volatile power forward viciously spiked the ball to get a technical.

That loomed large with 1:31 left in the first quarter, when Rodman and former Detroit “Bad Boys” teammate Rick Mahorn grappled for rebounding position. Rodman was whistled for the foul, prompting some untoward gestures that earned him another quick technical and an automatic ejection. The argument started pretty low-key (for Rodman, at least), but the technical ignited the Worm’s volcanic temper. His “head-butt” (really an accidental tap) of referee Ted Bernhardt would later lead to a six-game suspension.

Rodman left the court in bare-chested fashion after four rebounds in 10 minutes, and not before overturning a few Gatorade jugs on his way to the locker room. That caught the Bulls short against a formidable front line of New Jersey, which led the league in rebounding at the time. Buttressing 7-foot, 6-inch Shawn Bradley (rendered even more gawky with a bandaged chin), the Nets had rugged veterans Gilliam and Mahorn, as well as youngsters P.J. Brown and Jayson Williams (when he was known as eccentric rather than sociopathic).

The Bulls, who were also without the injured Jason Caffey, had to counter by pairing Longley with Bill Wennington and bringing John Salley and James Edwards out of the mothballs. Jordan had to keep Chicago in the game by staying hot, and he had 26 points in the first half on 11-for-16 shooting. But the Bulls went into halftime down, 52-46, mostly because the Nets dominated the glass with a 28-16 advantage. Childs showed his playmaking ability, notching 10 assists by the second quarter. He finished the game with his first triple-double (18 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds).

The Nets gained some distance in the third quarter, building a nine-point lead. Then Jordan flashed that indomitable will that has spawned countless hagiographic stories. Already shouldering the scoring burden, Jordan started rebounding with a vengeance. He pulled down 13 boards in the second half to finish with 16. All that work affected his shooting, however, as Jordan cooled down for a 3-of-13 second half.

This, of course, leads to the inevitable part of the story where unheralded players step up when they get the chances. After all, according to any commentator worth his or her salt, that’s what happens on great teams. Jud Buechler nailed 3 three-pointers in the third quarter, when the Bulls grabbed a 71-70 lead. Steve Kerr picked up the thread in the fourth quarter, scoring eight points and hitting 2 three-pointers. Wennington, who also helped Jordan mightily on the glass, sank two crucial mid-range jumpers as the Bulls took a 93-86 lead. Jordan finished the Nets off with four free throws in the final minute, giving him 37 points in the 97-93 victory.

Usual suspects Toni Kukoc (18 points) and Ron Harper (nine points, lock-down defense) contributed, but this game was notable for the Bulls grinding one out with Jordan getting the most help from former castoffs. That gave them a little more confidence as Pippen and Rodman got back into the fold and the Bulls won 15 of their next 18 games to set the regular-season record. That’s just what happens on a great team.

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