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Revenge Is Huge : Bulls Waited an Entire Year and Redesigned Team for Rematch Against Magic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since Michael Jordan, having already messed up every other way, flamed out as the Chicago Bulls blew an eight-point lead in the last 2:46 of Game 6 a year and a day ago, he and they have been living for this day.

Lucky them. Here’s the rematch: Chicago vs. Orlando in the Eastern finals: experience and wisdom vs. impetuous youth, Mike vs. Shaq, the Hog Butcher to the World vs. the city Mickey Mouse raised from a cane break.

The Bulls are 72-game winners, have home-court advantage and are favored.

Not to be denied, at least where talk is concerned, Magic players insist they might have won 70 too, if Shaquille O’Neal hadn’t missed the first 22. Of course, nobody had ever won 70, and they actually did better before O’Neal came back (17-5, .772) than after (43-19, .717).

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A year ago, Jordan, recently returned from baseball, averaged 31 points against the Magic and shot 48%, but turned into the series goat, letting Nick Anderson come up behind him and tip the ball away in the final seconds of Game 1 with the Bulls clinging to a one-point lead; gasping to the finish of Game 6, shooting an airball as the Magic rallied.

Jordan said he was sick for Game 6, but no one was satisfied with that. Coach Phil Jackson said later that Jordan’s stamina “never got there.”

Nor was Jordan satisfied. He holed up in a gym all summer--OK, it was a portable dome that a studio put up for him in Los Angeles where he was making a movie, complete with regulation court and weight room. As this season demonstrated, it did the trick.

“I must give them credit,” Jordan says of the Magic. “They gave me the initiative to go back in the gym and work on my game and get it back to where it needed to be.”

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The rest of the Bulls started getting ready for this one last summer too.

Jackson says the coaching staff began redesigning the team with the Magic in mind “from the time the season was over last year.”

Jackson wanted bigger guards to face 6-foot-7 Penny Hardaway, 6-5 Anderson and 6-5 Brian Shaw. Mysteriously, B.J. Armstrong, a star on the three championship teams, wound up on the expansion list at age 28. Insiders say Armstrong had become prickly, but he was also 6 feet tall. His place went to Ron Harper, a $4-million dud, but one who stood 6-6.

Jackson wanted big bodies to throw against the 7-1, 320-pound (at least) O’Neal. He asked Jordan, who was impatient with Luc Longley, to work him in. The slow-moving Aussie is 7-2, 270, and Jackson wanted someone close in size, even if overmatched in strength and quickness, to get in Shaq’s way.

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Jackson wanted help for Longley. The Bulls signed two more big men, John Salley and James Edwards.

He wanted a rebounder. Jackson says General Manager Jerry Krause “accepted our vision with some reluctance” and made the trade for Dennis Rodman.

Now the Bulls have more members of the Bad Boy Pistons (Rodman, Edwards, Salley) who mugged them annually in the ‘80s, than their championship teams (Jordan, Scottie Pippen) of the ‘90s. In other words, they’re ready for anything.

Here’s how it shapes up:

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WHEN ORLANDO HAS THE BALL

The Magic players are big, quick, young (the starters average 26.2 years) and have tremendous firepower.

For all the criticism he gets, O’Neal has no peer as a power player. During the season, he averaged 27 points and shot 57%. He doesn’t have all the moves of a Kevin McHale but has a jump hook turning right into the lane, a drop step turning left and incredible power besides.

“I know how big and strong Shaq is, a little more than you,” a rueful Salley told reporters. “I’ve been dunked on, over and through.”

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Magic Johnson has called Hardaway the second coming of Jordan. Penny is capable of slashing drives and pull-up three-point shots. He’s a fine post player and does it often late in games to keep opponents from fouling O’Neal.

O’Neal came in as a bad free throw shooter and has gotten worse each year--60%, 55%, 53% 49% this season, 40% this postseason. In close fourth quarters now, he gets rid of the ball as fast as he can.

It hasn’t been lost on the Magic that the Bulls have accumulated four big men and Rodman, giving them 30 fouls to use on O’Neal, the “Hack-a-Shaq” tactic. For the record, Jackson says the Bulls will play basketball and everything will be fine, unless the referees let O’Neal back the Bulls off the court.

The Bulls are tremendous defenders. Jordan, Pippen and Rodman are all-defensive first-team players. Harper has always been strong when motivated, as he is now.

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A year ago, Jackson double-teamed O’Neal, let Horace Grant shoot and almost turned the ex-Bull into Karl Malone. Grant averaged 18 points in the series and shot a blazing 65%, embarrassing Krause, who had failed to re-sign him.

This season, Jackson played O’Neal one-on-one with success. With everyone staying with their men, Dennis Scott, who made 3.3 three-point shots a game against everyone else, had seven in four games against the Bulls.

Expect the Magic to go to Shaq, early and often. What happens next should tell a lot of the story.

WHEN CHICAGO HAS THE BALL

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The Bulls can be anything from gritty to awesome, depending on how much help Jordan gets.

When Pippen and Toni Kukoc are on their games, the Bulls are a machine. Neither one (nor anyone else) scores at will the way Mike does, but both are fine ballhandlers, especially at their size (Pippen is 6-7, Kukoc 6-10). Both take opponents off the dribble, make plays for teammates and have range to the three-point line.

However, neither is as bulletproof as Jordan. Pippen slumped against the Knicks, tried to shoot himself out of it in Games 2 and 3 and when he couldn’t, took only obvious opportunities in Games 4 and 5. Kukoc, ice cold (he has missed 23 of 24 three-point attempts in the playoffs), left after Game 2 because of a back injury.

Orlando is a mediocre defensive team with good personnel. O’Neal is a force, though not as much on defense as he could be. Grant has been an all-defensive pick. Anderson, who guards Jordan, is good, and Hardaway, who’ll take Pippen, is very good.

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Jordan, of course, is Jordan and, with personal vindication at issue, may be even more so.

“Michael’s going to try and score most of the time he catches the ball,” said Jackson. “We’re trying to talk him out of doing it every time he catches the ball.”


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