Monday, April 5, 2010

Much In Reserve

The ground has thawed. The upper-echelon NBA teams have shortened their rotations. Both are sure signs that the playoffs are nigh.

No current coach knows the postseason better than Phil Jackson, who has helmed 10 championship teams. The Zenmaster will always be plagued by a school of thought that trumpets how Jackson always boasted several of the league’s top players: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Chicago Bulls, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in Jackson’s first stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, and now Bryant and Pau Gasol in the Lakers’ current version.

But Jackson has never been afraid of following some unorthodox intuitions. Take Game 6 of the 1992 NBA Finals between Jackson’s Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers. Chicago was up 3-2 in the series and, of course, all-or-nothing Game 7s are best avoided. The Bulls also wanted to clinch the championship on their own floor at Chicago Stadium, after winning the team’s first title on the road against the Lakers in the previous season’s Finals.

However, Chicago entered the fourth quarter against the Blazers trailing 79-64. Portland had dominated the third quarter, muscling the Bulls off the glass and taking the air out of crowd.

Jackson’s team needed a spark, and the coach trotted out this lineup: Pippen, B.J. Armstrong, Stacey King, Scott Williams and Bobby Hansen. Conspicuous in his absence from the court was Jordan, as the game’s greatest player was reduced to cheerleading in a pivotal stretch for his team.

No team in the history of the NBA Finals had ever overcome any deficit larger than 12 at the start of the fourth quarter. The Bulls players tasked by Jackson to start a historic comeback were more known for their flaws.

At that time, Pippen was still viewed strictly as a sidekick and there were doubts that he could be the solo go-to player (although he was named to the Dream Team that season). The baby-faced Armstrong was deemed too small to supplant John Paxson in the starting lineup. King was a chronic disappointment since being drafted sixth overall in 1989. Williams, in his second season, was a wild card whose energy could swing in positive or negative directions from one possession to the next. Hansen was already considered washed up when the Bulls traded for the ninth-year guard early that season.

Bulls fans were still digesting that lineup when Hansen nailed a three-pointer in front of the Portland bench. The crowd exploded when Hansen followed up that shot by stripping the ball away from the Blazers’ Jerome Kersey. King took the ball in the post and took it right at Kersey, whose frustration resulted in a flagrant foul.

Pippen took the reins from there. He scored on an up-and-under, then his suffocating defense forced Clyde Drexler to double-dribble. The crowd was at a fever pitch when Armstrong hit a mid-range jumper that cut the Blazers’ lead to five.

Jackson got what he had wanted. Total momentum shift. The reserves had brought the energy level up, with Williams and King hustling on the glass to shore up a problem in that particular game. Not used to the extended playing time, the substitutes also were running out of gas. Jackson brought Jordan back in for Hansen with 8:36 left. Paxson relieved Armstrong at the 5:45 mark. Williams and King stayed in, keeping Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright on the bench.

Pippen’s jumper gave the Bulls the lead for good at 91-89 with 2:21 remaining, and Chicago held on for a 97-93 victory and back-to-back NBA titles. The players headed back to the locker room to celebrate their nascent dynasty.

Jackson was embraced by Hansen, who was also holding tight to the game ball. It was a fitting image: the journeyman player giving thanks to the maverick coach for a five-minute stint that helped win a championship.

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