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NBA FINALS : LAKERS vs. CHICAGO BULLS : A Headache for Lakers : Bulls’ Scottie Pippen, Now a Mature On-Court Force, Is Ready to Silence His Critics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are the contradictions from Scottie Pippen himself, first claiming that he doesn’t have anything to prove, and a few minutes later acknowledging that “this is a big time for me.”

Pippen scored 29 points in a playoff game last season against the Philadelphia 76ers, a couple days after leaving the Chicago Bulls for his father’s funeral in Arkansas. But when Pippen suffered a migraine before Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals and made only one of 10 shots in 42 minutes of a victory by the Detroit Pistons, critics had a field day.

Wrote a local columnist: “Hello, Missing Pippens Bureau? I mean, Missing Persons Bureau.”

Pippen must defend himself despite averaging 17.8 points and shooting 52% during the season to help the Bulls reach the NBA finals, which begin today. There is a backside to every hand reaching to congratulate him.

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“I hear it,” he said of the criticism at Chicago Stadium Saturday after the final practice before the Bulls meet the Lakers.

Then he turned to the questioner.

“Did you hear it?”

Pippen doesn’t wait for an answer.

“It doesn’t effect me at all,” he said. “I know what I need to do. I know what I’m capable of doing.”

A product of Central Arkansas, an NAIA school, Pippen has increased his scoring average in each pro season from 7.9 to 14.4 to 16.5 to 17.8. His playoff average has increased from 10 to 13.1 to 19.3, reaching 22 after the last 12 games. The only question is which part of his game has improved most along the way, his maturity or outside shooting.

There were deficiencies in each.

“He has become a mature basketball player,” Coach Phil Jackson said.

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“It’s not that he doesn’t have that boyish enthusiasm for the game, but he knows what he wants to accomplish. I think more than anything, we in the office and on the staff have noticed how much he he has grown up.

“It was like he was distracted, playful. He and Horace (Grant) came into the game together as rookies, and there was always a frivolous nature about them. It was like puppies rolling around on the grass. There are so many sidelights for players, and you have to be able to handle it. Scottie has become a real leader for this club. He doesn’t just come to practice, he comes to practice to get things accomplished.”

Pippen, a 6-foot-7, 210-pounder, calls the maturation process a matter of putting things into perspective. So while Grant had developed into the starting power forward, Pippen has flourished alongside him because of versatility that comes from being a big man who can handle the ball and penetrate or shoot from the outside.

Whether he has matured enough to fully suit the Bulls is another matter. True, his $765,000 salary makes him the sixth-highest paid player on the team and one of the best bargains in the NBA, but his skipping practice in February with a play-me-or-trade-me tone one day after Chicago gained the best record in the East raised a few eyebrows. When he returned he said that his heart might not be in playing the rest of the season.

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The threat apparently didn’t materialize. But that didn’t silence the critics.

When Pippen missed a free throw in the meaningless season-ending game against Detroit, a fan in Chicago Stadium stood and yelled, “Hey, Pippen--what’s the matter? Got a migraine?”

“I’ve been able to play consistently,” Pippen said. “I don’t think I have anything to prove.”

This might be the year the critics disappear, thanks to a good playoff run. But there probably always will be a little migraine in the Bulls’ lore; after a sub-par 22-point showing in Game 1 of the recent Eastern finals against Detroit, Bull guard Michael Jordan quipped, “I may have had a headache today.”

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Pippen said he hasn’t had a headache since last year’s Piston finale, although he couldn’t tell you why. The only change he has made is that he wears glasses off the court, but the Bulls say his vision was only slightly off and not enough to cause a migraine. More than likely, they say, it was a combination of the slight vision problem and the stress of his father’s death.

So bring on the Lakers and all the pressure that goes with playing in the NBA finals for the first time. Pippen’s heart is in the right place. And his head.


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