Friday, August 20, 2010
Scottie Pippen now has a rightful place alongside the best players ever. But in the run-up to his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, it seemingly was a must to bring up the 1.8 seconds.
Pippen infamously refused to come back onto the court after Phil Jackson drew up the winning shot for Toni Kukoc in the Chicago Bulls’ 104-102 victory over the New York Knicks in Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals. The incident has been used to darken Pippen’s reputation as a selfish player. Somehow it also cemented the idea in some people’s minds that Pippen didn’t know how to handle being the locus of attention on a team.
The 1.8 seconds, of course, are merely a blip on Pippen’s remarkable road from abject poverty to team manager at Central Arkansas to one of the greatest NBA players of all time. But that shot should have been Pippen’s, and it is a good surmise that if Phil Jackson had to do it over again, Pete Myers would have been lobbing the ball in for No. 33.
Pippen momentarily lost his mind. It was a childish decision, to be sure, but it was a split-second response to a highly emotional situation. It helps Pippen’s side of the argument to get the full back story.
There was already the emotionally fraught dynamic between Pippen and Kukoc. This was also Pippen’s first year playing in the NBA without Michael Jordan, and the running theme of the season was whether Pippen could truly be a top dog.
Then there were the Knicks. Pat Riley’s teams had tried to scrap and pull and grab their way past the Bulls for years, often targeting Pippen for the most physicality. With Jordan off on his baseball sabbatical, the Knicks sensed a window of opportunity and were going to do whatever it took to knock the Bulls aside.
Pippen was often frustrated by the physical play. In this series, he had five fouls in Game 1 and fouled out of Game 2. It didn’t take long for the Knicks to go hard at Pippen in Game 3. Charles Smith checked into the game with eight minutes left in the first period and was involved in two shoving matches with Pippen in the span of 60 seconds.
All the grappling spilled over in the second quarter, when Bulls reserve Jo Jo English and Knicks guard Derek Harper touched off a brawl that spilled in the stands at Chicago Stadium just a few feet from the watchful eyes of NBA Commissioner David Stern.
So emotions were definitely running high in this game. Pippen was in the middle of the scrum but was mostly acting as a peacemaker. This was his team, the Bulls needed him on the court, and he took his job very seriously. He set the tone defensively, as always, guarding Harper on the ball, chasing sharpshooter Hubert Davis on the perimeter and bumping with Anthony Mason on the blocks. Pippen also got on teammate Luc Longley for being too passive and got in the ear of Scott Williams for being too reactive.
Pippen was also in the groove offensively. He had 14 points on 5-for-10 shooting at halftime. He pushed the tempo of the game as the Bulls upped the lead to 22 points at one point in the third quarter. Stupid fouls and mental mistakes by the Bulls let the Knicks back into game. Pippen scored his final basket to give him 25 points and the Bulls a 98-86 lead with just under five minutes remaining.
Pippen was obviously going full-tilt to get the Bulls past a hated rival. What was Kukoc doing? Not much. The rookie made a few nice passes, had some nifty post moves, but played only 13 minutes. Kukoc hadn’t been in on the court at all in the fourth quarter until checking in after the Knicks cut the lead to 102-100 in the final 30 seconds.
Pippen had his chance to the play the hero here but was caught with the ball as the shot clock was running out. He tried to make a one-on-one play but ran out of room on the wing because Kukoc was firmly planted in the corner. After Pippen’s wild three-pointer missed badly and the Knicks called timeout, he was seen yelling at Kukoc as the teams headed to their huddles.
So after Patrick Ewing’s runner tied the game, leaving those famous 1.8 seconds, and Jackson put the ball in Kukoc’s inexperienced hands, it was all too much for Pippen.
He melted down in an impossibly charged atmosphere. Who knows why “The Zenmaster” entrusted a rookie that was often criticized as being soft? Perhaps he knew that, with the Bulls inbounding on the right side, the left-handed Kukoc could field a lob pass against Mason and get off an easier shot than a right-hander could.
You can’t argue with the result: Kukoc calmly sank the jumper at the top of the key. But you can certainly argue with those who permanently grade down Pippen for refusing to play those 1.8 seconds. It was his team and his game to win against an opponent that had bullied and bloodied him in the past. That should have been Pippen’s shot.