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Against Cooper, Jordan Will Have to Defend His Case

February 02, 1988|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

On top of everything else, Michael Jordan--the sky-walking Chicago conglomerate who has invented more ways to score than a street-corner hustler--also plays defense.

It's still rapture for the Bulls' guard to be suspended in midair, tongue hanging out, double- and triple-pump past three defenders, and jam the ball through the net from behind his Vulcan-like ears. But it's respect that Jordan is looking for, respect he felt was denied him when he was left off the National Basketball Assn.'s all-defensive squads even though he became the first player ever to make more than 200 steals and block more than 100 shots in the same season.

No one since the Lakers' Jerry West has led the league in scoring and made the all-defensive team in the same season.

"I'd rather make all-defense than all-NBA," Jordan has said.

To do so, however, Jordan will have to encroach on the private domain of one Michael Cooper, the Laker guard who was voted the league's best defensive player last season. Unwittingly or not, Jordan--who will go head to head with Cooper tonight in a sold-out Forum engagement--cast aspersions on Cooper's selection when he told Sports Illustrated:

"Michael Cooper is great at ball denial. But check his other stats (78 steals, 43 blocks). This league gives defensive awards on reputation. It just tees me off."

Cooper, who had seen the remark before, was shown a copy of the magazine again Monday after practice. If he was teed off, he didn't show it, but the smile he flashed could have chilled the heart of an ax murderer.

"That's his opinion," Cooper said. "Everybody's entitled to express an opinion.

"I know my defense is good. I don't think steals and blocked shots are the only measures of playing defense. I'm not a starter, so I don't play enough to accumulate those kind of stats, but I feel I'm more of a containment type player."

As usual, Jordan leads the National Basketball Assn. in scoring, averaging better than 33 points a game. But he also leads the league in steals with 151, a shade over 3 1/2 thefts a game. Last Friday night against New Jersey, Jordan made 10 steals, a club and Chicago Stadium record. The next night, against the New York Knicks, Jordan scored the game-tying basket, then blocked a layup by Knicks' 7-footer Patrick Ewing at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. The Bulls won that one, too.

The 6-6 Jordan has had 6 or more steals in 7 games this season, and 4 or more blocks in 18 games. Last season, his 125 blocks were the most ever for an NBA guard, and more blocks than 13 starting centers.

Is Jordan justified in believing he belongs in the company of the league's best defenders?

"Sure, I think he is," Cooper said. "He has the stats to back him up. But hopefully, people will see some of the subtler things that are involved in defense, things that myself and DJ (Boston's Dennis Johnson) do, as far as containing a man.

"(Jordan) is a good defensive player, but he still can be beaten, just like the rest of us."

Laker guard Byron Scott, who will draw the assignment of guarding Jordan before Cooper gets his crack at him in what should be the evening's most entertaining game-within-a-game, expressed respect for Jordan's defensive skills. But Scott said Jordan will have to work as hard on defense as Cooper does before he can consider himself in Cooper's class.

"I think he's underrated on defense because he's a scorer--I think my defense is underrated for the same reason," Scott said. "I think he plays better team defense than individual defense--he gets a lot of his steals and blocked shots when he comes over and helps out, when he's rotating.

"But I think a lot of times he rests on defense. They're giving him 40 minutes a game, they want him to have the ball as much as possible, and if he played defense to the extent he played offense, he'd be worn out. And he's smart enough to know that. He knows he can't go all-out on both ends of the court.

"He has the quickness, the jumping ability, the long arms and big hands, just like Coop. But I don't think he's better than Coop because Coop works extremely hard at it."

Laker Coach Pat Riley elaborated on the difference in style between Cooper and Jordan.

"Cooper's idea of defense is to shut a guy down with (ball) denial, cutting off passing lanes, and containment by fighting through picks," Riley said. "Michael Jordan is more like a free safety in football, always gambling, blocking shots and looking for steals. He's so good at it because of his anticipation; he doesn't overextend the team's defense by gambling. Earvin (Johnson) plays like that.

"People aren't going to believe it because he's such a great offensive player, but his defense deserves more recognition than it gets."

Not to worry, though. Riley fully expects Jordan to fill it up tonight.

"He'll probably get 30 or 40," the coach said. "We might do a hell of a job on him individually and rise to the occasion to affect his shooting, but whoever's on him has got to get help. Maybe then we can hold him to the low 20's.

"The key to playing him is his field-goal percentage. You can't let him make 15 out of 19 shots. It's got to be more like 12 out of 30."

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