Eugene Amos gets kicked where it really hurts, and the Lakers wince. Sympathy pains.
They'd been there. On the ground, doubled over, one or more Bulls looming.
The Lakers got it in the most delicate of places too. Their hopes.
There they were, ahead by 19 points, 104-85, with 10:34 left in the fourth quarter. National TV. In the United Center. On a rare off night for Michael Jordan.
They were still ahead by 15 with 8:44 left.
Ahead by 11 with 4:20 left.
By two with 14.2 seconds left.
Their fabulous play of the first 3 1/2 quarters was deteriorating fast.
Sure enough, the score was tied at the end of regulation. And after a five-minute overtime, the Bulls had beaten the Lakers, 129-123. It was Dec. 17.
Now it's Feb. 5 and the Bulls are at the Forum, minus Dennis Rodman, the man who made baseline photographer Amos famous, but here nonetheless. Just when the Lakers thought it was safe to go back in the water.
"We feel like we owe them one," Nick Van Exel says. "But it's more like a statement game. We want to earn the respect."
That's because the Lakers have the best record in the Western Conference and had won six straight before Tuesday night's loss to the Clippers, but take the court tonight trying to prove they can play the full 48, or 53 minutes, with the best. Their Chicago hopes are to avoid a repeat, against the team trying to repeat.
"We learned from it," Eddie Jones said. "We learned great teams, they never quit."
Among other things. Coach Del Harris will insist these seven weeks later, that the loss did not come about solely because a team weakness was exposed, the Lakers' inability to handle the Bulls' defensive pressure. But he also had noted the "withering defense" in the moments after the Lakers were held to five points the final 4:40 of regulation, with the summation that "We stunk it up in the fourth quarter. They did a great job to help cause that."
To be sure, there were other factors:
--The 18 points Toni Kukoc scored in the fourth quarter, making four of five three-point shots, and his team-high 31 on a night Jordan went 10 for 32 from the field.
--Missed Laker free throws. The Lakers saved nine of their 12 misses for the fourth quarter and overtime.
But their struggle merely getting into the offense against the Bulls' press is what stands out. The Bulls seemingly threw the "off" switch on the team that had produced 72 points by halftime and 101 through three quarters.
There were traps and presses, some full-court, some that allowed the ball within 20 feet of the basket and then stopped it there with hawkish perimeter defense that made entry passes to Shaquille O'Neal in the post impossible.
In the end, the Lakers had committed 15 turnovers, a number hardly worth great concern--except that six were committed in the fourth quarter and led to 12 Chicago points, and three in a stretch of 1:26 as the Bulls reduced an eight-point deficit to three with 1:43 left.
Van Exel, in an otherwise brilliant offensive performance of 36 points on 14-of-21 shooting, made two of those bad passes and afterward took the blame for the loss.
"We know we had a problem with it," Jones said. "The first thing to do is admit when you have a problem and then do something about it."
So they did.
"We've been working on it ever since," Jones said.
Meet the press. It's not just for Sunday mornings anymore.
"But it wasn't the only thing," said Harris, who a day later also took responsibility, noting the Lakers were not properly prepared. "You ask people now, they say, 'Every time they got the ball, they threw it away or they couldn't get a shot.' That wasn't how it was.
"We've been pressed since then probably a hundred times. But nobody has made any note of the fact that every time somebody has tried to press us, there's been very little result. We haven't lost a game since because of it. We've gone through a lot of teams since then, Seattle and others. But everybody still focuses back to one thing.
"So I think we'll do fine. And if we don't, I don't think it will be because of that. And I've been doing this since 1959."
The Lakers were fine at the time, at least. They recovered to beat the Bucks in Milwaukee the next night and then ended the three-game trip on another down note by losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves. But they were by no means derailed, even short term, by what could have been a devastating setback. Since that December night in Chicago, they have gone 14-5.
After the Clipper loss they are 34-13, and atop the Western Conference. But now the Bulls are here, so consider "king of the hill" something of a relative term. Until proven otherwise.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The First Matchup
\o7 The Bulls trailed the Lakers by 14 points after the first quarter when the teams met Dec. 17 and the visitors built the lead to 18 going into the fourth quarter. The Bulls outscored the Lakers, 33-15, in the fourth quarter and 46-22 in the final 17 minutes.