THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Bulls Simply Not as Good as a Year Ago

Is there anyone out there, aside from Miami, that the Chicago Bulls can sweep?

The gentlemanly Cleveland Cavaliers arrived in New York Knick-weary Chicago, as welcome as a 10,000-member convention . . . until Thursday's Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, when they ran up a 35-point lead and gave the Bulls a beating to remember.

Saturday, the Bulls reasserted control of the series, but once again the dynasty of the 1990s finds itself fighting for its life.

What's gone wrong this time?

Thuggery?

No way. The Cavaliers are even nicer than Chicago is. When Scottie Pippen lost his feet in the opener, Larry Nance helped him up and asked if he was OK. By the Bulls' admission, this series is rated G.

"No punches," Horace Grant said after the Game 1 walkover. "No scratching. No clawing. No kicking. No shooting. No murder. You can bring your kids to see a game like this."

An NBA conspiracy?

In Chicago, the plot to kill JFK was small potatoes compared to the theory that the NBA office was in cahoots with the Knicks. That lame duck won't fly any farther. If you want to know what really wakes Commissioner David Stern in a cold sweat, it's the thought of a Portland-Cleveland finals.

The "media elite" strikes again?

After his Game 2 rout, Bull Coach Phil Jackson told Chicago writers: "You guys are to blame, too. You put the Cavs down."

He had a point. Here's how someone with the best interests of the Bulls at heart might have treated Game 1:

CHICAGO--Despite trailing by 25 points in the first half, the Cavaliers fought valiantly and cut their final deficit to 103-89 .

Coach Phil Jackson called the Cavaliers "a finesse team," and several Bulls seemed to sneer at their passivity, but this can be dismissed as a premature celebration. Anyone who has been around knows the Cleveland Cavaliers could well win Game 2, 107-81, should the home forces abandon their constant vigilance.

Pippen's sprained ankle?

During the Knick series, TV analysts took turns diagnosing his problem as one of limping as opposed to gagging. Pippen's ankle improved dramatically when the Knicks left town, but he started tiptoeing around again as soon as the going got tough against Cleveland.

The Bulls are tired?

We're getting warmer.

That Knicks took something out of them. The questions are: how much, and are the Cavaliers tenacious enough to take advantage?

The Bulls aren't as good as they were a year ago?

Bingo!

They look more like the pre-'91 team of Michael Jordan and "my supporting cast," less like a dynasty. Jordan carried them past the Knicks but will be hard-pressed to carry them past the entire NBA.

In the faint afterglow of the Knick series, Jordan joked (half-joked?) about what might have been.

"If we had lost, there's no telling what would have happened," he said. "Scottie probably would have been traded. Everybody on the team would have been condemned. Phil would have been fired. You never know, basketball never would have been the same."

GAINING IQ POINTS (BY THE MINUTE)

What word don't you hear applied to the Portland Trail Blazers any more?

"Dumb."

These days they are back to "awesome" or "red-hot" or "the most athletic team in the league."

A year ago, outside shooting, the long-missing complement to their fast-break game, sparked their 19-1 start. Then Danny Ainge went into a midseason slump that lasted until this spring, Terry Porter slouched through the start of this season and even Kevin Duckworth got the blues, accounting for the Trail Blazer funk.

But it's over now.

Porter has made 57% of his playoff three-pointers--the equivalent of shooting 85% on two-pointers.

Ainge has made 45% of his three-pointers, which translates to 67%.

Clyde Drexler shot poorly in the Laker and Sun series--you tended to forget because he was averaging 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists--but has warmed up, too. Against the Jazz, he has made 33% of his three-pointers.

Portland being Portland, the Trail Blazers are celebrating with their no-respect routine.

Said Drexler of those calling the Trail Blazer guards the game's top tandem:

"They should have been saying that years ago."

COACH OF THE YEAR

I've seen enough. The envelope please:

1. Pat Riley, Knicks. His team took as large a step in postseason as it did in the regular season, no small trick.

2. Mike Dunleavy, Lakers. In November, when he was only missing Magic Johnson and Vlade Divac, I told him I'd vote for him if he made the playoffs. He lost two more starters and made it, but Riley's masterpiece saws him off.

3. Chris Ford, Celtics.

4. George Karl, Seattle.

5. Larry Brown, Clippers.

6. Don Nelson, Warriors. Another example of why pre-playoff balloting is premature. Nelson, official NBA coach of the year, succumbed to that competitive fire that is hottest in the greats and burned his team out in the stretch. Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway were 1-2 in the NBA in minutes, ahead even of Dennis Rodman, and both had pallid series against the SuperSonics.

FACES AND FIGURES

Our Dan Quayle Award for most fearless insight goes to "Today" anchor Bryant Gumbel for this not-soon-to-be-forgotten perspective on the Trail Blazers: "Anybody should win but the Portland Cry Blazers. I mean, really. Clyde Drexler and Buck Williams are gentlemen, but the rest of that team--crybabies!" . . . Actually, he said it during a station break, but it was picked up by ever-vigilant Portland stations. That collective groan came from Gumbel's NBC Sports colleagues, who will face a sea of hostile banners from the enraged townfolk for the next month.

Local hero Dan Issel became Denver Nugget coach, an adept hire in spite of his inexperience because the team has had a public relations problem for two seasons and is too young to challenge, anyway. . . . Former Warrior assistant Garry St. Jean got the Sacramento job, one more sign of the Kings' enduring love-hate relationship with cross-state rival Don Nelson. . . . The same day Ron Rothstein got the Piston job, Dennis Rodman accused him of undercutting former coach Chuck Daly (Piston players say privately that as Piston announcer, Rothstein was a spy for General Manager Jack McCloskey) and asked to be traded. McCloskey, who hired Rothstein, was interviewing for the Minnesota job. You can time Rothstein's tenure in Detroit with a stopwatch. . . . Rudy Tomjanovich got the Rocket job. Rival general managers say Hakeem Olajuwon is not on the market. Owner Charlie Thomas might be trying to preserve his status quo long enough to sell it. . . . If anyone but Daly gets the New Jersey job, Net ownership should disband (a good idea in any case). Daly's strength is his ability to accommodate headstrong players. The Nets have a half dozen for him to work with.

The Orlando Magic brought in three telephone operators to take season-ticket renewals during last week's lottery but were besieged by calls after drawing the first choice, presumably Shaquille O'Neal. Fans came down and pounded on the windows, trying to get the office opened. . . . O'Neal is considered much more likely to sign with Orlando--and far less likely to hold out for a trade to the Lakers or Clippers--than he would have been with say, Minnesota. Orlando has warm weather and, despite its small TV market, a great growth curve and commercial possibilities. "Any place Disney is," says a rival agent, "you're going to be looking at a good market." . . . The Magic must clear nearly $5 million under the salary cap, complicated by the long-term contracts General Manager Pat Williams gave Terry Catledge (six years, $9 million), Greg Kite (four years, $4 million) and Jerry Reynolds (four years, $5.6 million). Said a general manager: "I think there's going to be a fire sale in the Orlando area."

The draft won't firm up until the June rookie camp in Chicago, but here's the early line on the top of the lottery: 1. Orlando, O'Neal. 2. Charlotte, Alonzo Mourning. 3. Minnesota, Jim Jackson or Christian Laettner. First decision point. Minnesota has guards and needs big men, but Jackson is considered the more solid player. 4. Dallas, whichever of the two the Timberwolves don't pick. 5. Denver, looking for a big man, might go for Adam Keefe ("an Issel type," notes one coach) or might trade down. Harold Miner, the consensus fifth-best player, would force out last year's No. 1 pick, Mark Macon. 6. Washington, also looking for a big man, is considering LaPhonso Ellis, who might move up because he is the best center/big forward prospect left. The Bullets are split on Miner, worried about his 42% shooting. 7. Sacramento, would like a center or point guard, but there aren't any. Also might think about Ellis. Otherwise, pick from Walt Williams, Todd Day, Tom Gugliotta. Miner is unlikely because Kings have Mitch Richmond. . . . Seattle management is bristling at Benoit Benjamin and Gary Payton, who allegedly disrupted six days of practice after the Golden State series, setting the team up for its five-game wipeout by the Jazz. . . . Sucker-born-every-day dept.: The Dallas Mavericks are thinking of trading Derek Harper for Payton to become younger.

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