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NBA PLAYOFFS

After a Dubious Beginning, Bulls Are Gaining Strength

May 12, 1997|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — If the Chicago Bulls were vulnerable, what were the Atlanta Hawks?

Dreaming?

In over their heads?

Up past their bedtimes?

All of the above. The Bulls, who arrived here tired, grim and tied, 1-1, in the Eastern Conference semifinal, left after a Sunday outing of laughing, mugging and making rude gestures to the fans, cruising to an 89-80 victory over the Hawks to take a 3-1 series lead.

So much for their latest crisis. The Bulls can end it Tuesday. If Miami and New York go six games, they would get at least four days off to rest.

Michael Jordan after a more normal MJ performance (27 points, eight rebounds, his first 50% shooting game in the last three), said, "Our mission was served coming here, try to get both wins, take it game by game.

"We did that and in the midst of that, we found ourselves a little bit in the playoffs."

Just what the rest of the league wanted to hear. If the Bulls go on to win another title this summer, they'll never forget this weekend, when they washed in a low ebb and left on a high tide.

Of course, in retrospect, they say they were never worried.

"Not really," said Coach Phil Jackson. "I told the players, we've been in this situation before. Some of the younger guys on the ball club haven't. We've gone away and won two games on the road and come home in control of the series.

"I said that could very likely happen but it had to be done with a certain sense of desperateness about our defense, that we had to step into defense like we knew how to play it, get some consistent stops, instead of two stops here and then they score twice . . .

"I thought we made them have to wonder if they could score."

They did that, all right. By the second quarter, the Hawks seemed to be wondering if they'd ever score again, or what they were doing out there, or whether they could just go home if they lost.

Or maybe they were already gone. After Saturday's loss, Dikembe Mutombo ripped teammates, whom he said "quit," adding there had been too much barking at referees, an obvious reference to Steve Smith.

Of course, the matchup posed enough problems. The Hawks are strictly offense-lite and against a great defensive team, like the Bulls, they're in real trouble.

They won Game 2 when Mookie Blaylock broke out of a postseason slump to hit an unconscious eight of nine three-point shots. Unfortunately, the Bulls began monitoring Blaylock's every move and he soon regained consciousness.

Dismayed at their inability to run an offense, this rock-ribbed defensive team began to let Bulls sneak behind it for dunks, stopped blocking out, basically just stopped, period. By the third quarter, the Bulls were ahead by 24 and, for the first time this postseason, looking like their old colossus selves.

"That the thing you can't do," said Hawk Coach Lenny Wilkens. "You can't drop your heads. You can't get down on yourself because it is four quarters."

Wilkens says the Hawks were inspired by "some of them over there, laughing at us," which they certainly were. Jordan was laughing, kidding opponents and bantering with fans. Brian Williams made a rude gesture to the fans, then camouflaged it by pretending to rotate his shoulder.

So the Hawks made a run. The Bulls treated the whole thing cavalierly, until Christian Laettner's layup cut it to 83-80 with 55 seconds left.

So the Bulls started paying attention again and the Hawks scored no more.

With 30 seconds left, Jordan dunked. With the Omni scheduled to be demolished this summer, someone asked him if he thought that would be the last one for the arena.

"I would say so, yes," Jordan said.

The Hawks could open it up once more by winning Game 5, although no one seems to be thinking that way any more. Two days ago, the operative word was "vulnerable" but now it's "good night."

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