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Can He Still Be Like Mike?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What, the Chicago Bulls worry?

The four-time-defending-champion-in-Michael-Jordan’s-last-four-full-seasons, lords of all they’ve surveyed in the ‘90s, the brash guys who have specialized in sneering at you before cutting out your heart and handing it to you?

Would those Bulls worry about a little problem like a 2-2 tie with the Utah Jazz?

Maybe just a little.

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“I would probably say yes,” said Scottie Pippen, asked if this was the most concerned he has been in a finals. “Not that I’m very concerned.”

Right. They might all be dreaming of their escape from Utah but in public right now, the key word is. . . .

“Fun,” said Michael Jordan. “It’s a great challenge. No one said this was going to be easy. . . .

“This team is making us work hard for it, but as I see a challenge. . . . We have to remain poised and go out there and treat it as that. It’s not a life-and-death type of situation. It’s entertainment and it’s the opportunity to be the best at what you do. That’s fun to me.

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“We’re 2-2 now, with Game 5 here. We haven’t been in this situation in a long time and that is fun, the way I look at it.”

OK, fun, we’ve got it.

Of course, back in Chicago, it’s as much hysteria as fun, and if it isn’t life-threatening, it may be Bulls-career-threatening for Coach Phil Jackson and, therefore, Jordan, Pippen, et al.

And their new endangered status hasn’t slowed the rate of distraction. A Chicago radio station reported that Jackson got another multimillion-dollar offer over the weekend, this one from Vancouver. Jackson says he won’t comment.

Dennis Rodman bolted for Las Vegas on Sunday night. He said he wasn’t there, then admitted he was--"to get rid of this bad taste in my mouth, Salt Lake City or whatever.”

Several of Rodman’s teammates rolled their eyes at the news and discussed it at length.

The Bulls have always been distraction-proof, but that could change soon. If the question is, how did they blow their 2-0 lead, distractions might have been part of it, but less a part as injuries and, the ultimate terminator of sports dynasties, old age.

What happened last weekend has been going on all spring. Having shrunk from dominating to vulnerable to beatable, the Bulls finally came up against a Jazz team good enough and tough enough to play with them.

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There is breath left in the defending champions, and fight, which is fortunate for them. By the look of things, they’ll need all they’ve got.

SEE UTAH (AND DIE?)

One way or another, the Bulls won’t forget this place, and it won’t have anything to do with the beautiful, snow-capped peaks in the Wasatch Range, towering above them in their Park City retreat; or the spring weather, about 15 degrees warmer than the blustery days back home.

Their memories will be more of the zonked-out Jazz fans who screamed so loud that everyone’s ears still rang the next day.

Of the fife-and-drum corps that marched down the main drag of Park City at 6 a.m. on their first day in town.

Of the Jazz’s pregame fireworks show that had Jackson using earplugs and his players putting their fingers in their ears.

Of the placard-bearing crowd that so irritated “the Irritator,” Rodman, he asked referee Dick Bavetta to remove two--a picture of Rodman as a missing child on a simulated milk carton and a life-size poster of him in a dress--during Game 4.

Of the Jazz’s bear mascot riding a motorcycle onto the court during a timeout, presumably with no muffler on it, making it sound like an entire Hells Angels formation and prompting Jackson to spring after referee Eddie Rush to complain.

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No, one might infer that the Bulls aren’t having the times of their lives.

The league has tried to help, an official with a decibel meter ordering the P.A. announcer to turn down the sound when the noise level passes 95.

“In big cities like New York and Chicago, they let the teams get away with anything they want,” complained Jazz promotions director Grant Harrison. “But when it comes to little Utah, they think they can push us around.”

It just shows how hard it is to please anyone these days.

Nor has Park City worked out. The Bulls went there to get away from the hubbub of city life--what hubbub of city life?--assuming the league would ferry the press corps up to them. Wrong. Now the Bulls practice in Park City and spend another 90 minutes a day going to and from the media sessions on a bus. No question, the best quotes are the ones on the bus.

And, let’s face it, this place is different and not only because the Jazz is the only show in a town thirsting for recognition (headline in the Salt Lake Tribune: “NBA Finals Gives Utah a Showcase to Dispel Hazy Misunderstandings”).

Be it ever so unrecognized, this is basketball country. Robert Kirby, the self-described “OxyMormon” who writes a religious column in the Tribune, notes his church dreams of “Mormonizing the world. . . . Lots of Mormons think this is way cool, the logic here being that in order to get into heaven, everyone needs to look like the Cleavers.”

This, of course, dovetails neatly with NBA Commissioner David Stern’s yearning to conquer the world. Aside from that, however, Kirby senses some cultural shock.

“First to go in the Mormon NBA would be the cool nicknames like Mailman, Big Dog, Worm, Basketball John and Clyde the Glide,” he writes. “Instead, players would get stuck with nicknames like ‘the Moroni Man’ and ‘Bishopric John.’ I can’t see this working. Who’s going to buy season tickets to watch somebody called ‘Home Teacher’ shoot 40%?

” . . . Then there’s the whole issue of money. Can you see Shaq playing for blessings? I don’t think so.”

This cultural tug-of-war can also be seen in Jazz owner Larry Miller, who doesn’t attend Sunday games for religious reasons, but has been in more than a few scuffles at the ones from Monday to Saturday, taunting opposing players from his courtside seat, once fighting some Denver fans.

Karl Malone and John Stockton may thrive here, but all the Bulls want is out. Their jet leaves late Wednesday night after Game 5, and don’t hold your breath until any of them returns on vacation.

IS THIS THE END OF JORDAN?

In a word, no.

However, if the question is, is Michael Jordan still great enough, at 34, to take an entire team on his back, lead it to a championship every year and make it a dynasty almost single-handedly, the answer is:

Tune in Wednesday and see.

To a degree unprecedented in the annals of “great” teams, the Bulls depend on a single player to score big points and make clutch plays. Rarely was this more clearly expressed than after Game 3, when Pippen, the team’s second star, was asked if he could have taken more advantage of little Jeff Hornacek, who was guarding him.

“I’m not the player Michael Jordan is,” Pippen said. “I’m not looking to score 30 points.”

One cannot remember any of the other supposed top 50 players of all time making such a concession, like Jerry West saying, “I’m not the player Elgin Baylor is,” or vice versa.

Pippen is a fine all-around player, but who knows how famous he would be now without the four titles he won playing alongside Jordan?

All the Bulls play fabulous defense and rebound, and they certainly know their roles, but without Jordan?

“I have such high regard for him,” ESPN’s Jack Ramsay says. “I think it’s an average team without him.

“In contrast to Utah, where Stockton and Malone are a tandem. Chicago also has Pippen but Michael doesn’t rely on Pippen for his success. Jordan does everything on his own, more or less. Now, he works within the offense but when the offense isn’t giving him shots, he just creates his own thing.

“Plus, he busts his butt on defense, and I think that’s why he’s tired. He’s expending a lot of energy chasing Hornacek, who runs the floor well and runs off screens and does all that stuff. I mean, that’s a load.

“Now, there will come a time when [Jordan] can’t do that any more. You know, he’s 34 years old. What he’s done is incredible but at some point, he may have reached the limit.”

It may be this week. Having had an easy trip to the finals--and no fewer than five days to rest before every series until this one--the Bulls are in a tough matchup, with Rodman declining as a factor . . . on the court, anyway. And the pivotal Game 5 is in the loud Delta Center.

The man they’ll look to with such yearning has a recent pattern of playing his best early in series, then fading as the games pile up, presumably because of fatigue from the monster load he shoulders.

In last spring’s finals, Jordan averaged 31 points in the first three games and shot 46%. In the last three, after the Seattle SuperSonics got back into it, he averaged 23.7 and shot 36.7%.

In this spring’s playoff games, Jordan has:

* Averaged 32.8 points and shot 49.1% in Games 1.

* Averaged 35.8 and shot 49.5% in Games 2.

* Averaged 27.3 and shot 49.5% in Games 3.

* Averaged 26 and shot 38.1% in Games 4.

* Averaged 26 and shot 37% in Games 5.

The words “mortal” and “immortal” have begun cropping up in questions, suggesting the game’s matinee idol is being inspected for feet of clay, or retirement plans.

“These are things that have become, over the period of time I’ve been playing the game, expectations of the fans, of the media,” Jordan says. “To some degree, it’s a marketing standpoint.

“All that has played into the expectations of this immortal person. I think I’m just a basketball player and a normal person. . . .

“I’ve put it on myself. It’s motivation for me to try to live up to the expectations that I’ve created for myself. I can’t live up to the expectations that people have for me . . . but I have my own expectations as a basketball player and that’s what I try to live up to.”

He expects to get the Bulls out of town with a 3-2 lead, and you can almost hear the Delta Center P.A. system tuning up in anticipation. They’ve never seen a basketball game as momentous around here, or for that matter, anywhere else in the NBA in the ‘90s.

It has taken the game that long to catch up to Jordan, and it might not have overhauled him yet.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Wear and Tear?

A look at the rise and fall of Michael Jordan’s scoring average and shooting percentage during the 1997 playoffs, broken down by games of the series against Washington, Atlanta, Miami and Utah:

GAME 1s

Scoring Avg.: 32.8

FG Shooting %: 49.1

*

GAME 2s

Scoring Avg.: 35.8

FG Shooting %: 49.5

*

GAME 3s

Scoring Avg.: 27.3

FG Shooting %: 49.5

*

GAME 4s

Scoring Avg.: 26.0

FG Shooting %: 38.1

*

GAME 5s

Scoring Avg.: 26.0

FG Shooting %: 37.0

NBA FINALS

* Game 1: Chicago 84, Utah 82

* Game 2: Chicago 97, Utah 85

* Game 3: Utah 104, Chicago 93

* Game 4: Utah 78, Chicago 73

* Wednesday--at Utah 6 p.m.

* Friday--at Chicago 6 p.m.

* Sunday--at Chicago 4:30 p.m.-x

x-if necessary

Taking the Fifth

In six of the last 10 NBA finals that have gone five games or more, the winner of Game 5 has eventually lost the series.

1984-85

Game 5: LAKERS 120, Boston 111

* Lakers win series, 4-2

1985-86

Game 5: HOUSTON 111, Boston 96

* Boston wins series, 4-2

1986-87

Game 5: BOSTON 123, Lakers 108

* Lakers win series, 4-2

1987-88

Game 5: DETROIT 104, Lakers 94

* Lakers win series, 4-3

1989-90

Game 5: Detroit 92, PORTLAND 90

* Detroit wins series, 4-1

1990-91

Game 5: Chicago 108, LAKERS 101

* Chicago wins series, 4-1

1991-92

Game 5: Chicago 119, PORTLAND 106

* Chicago wins series, 4-2

1992-93

Game 5: Phoenix 108, CHICAGO 98

* Chicago wins series, 4-2

1993-94

Game 5: NEW YORK 91, Houston 84

* Houston wins series, 4-3

1995-96

Game 5: SEATTLE 89, Chicago 78

* Chicago wins series, 4-2

HOME TEAM IN CAPS


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