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As if They're Needed, Bulls Get Breaks Too

NBA playoffs: Instead of Knicks, Chicago will get a potentially overmatched and weary Miami team.


CHICAGO — Is this a cosmic joke?

In a trying postseason for the Bulls, it sometimes seems as if all the angels in heaven are flying to their rescue.

They struggle in their first-round series against the clueless Washington Bullets, lose home-court advantage against the Hawks in the second round, then, with big guns Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen silent, rally from 10 points behind in Atlanta in Game 3 to turn the series around.

In their most important stretch of the playoffs, they go on a 17-4 run in Game 3's fourth quarter with a lineup of Judd Buechler, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Brian Williams and Jordan--with Jordan scoring only two of the points.

The Hawks promptly die.

Meanwhile, in the other Eastern Conference semifinal, the New York Knicks blitz to a 3-1 lead, after an impressive 3-0 sweep of the Charlotte Hornets. People are calling them the best team in the East, and they have a history of playing the Bulls tough.

Oops! Miami wins the series, with a hand from Commissioner David Stern, who bans five Knicks spread over Games 6 and 7.

The Heat, a 61-game winner during the season, has already been exposed by the Orlando Magic in the opening series, which went a hard five games. In the second round, Miami looked wholly inferior to the Knicks, until fate evened the sides.

Even Pat Riley, Miami's never-say-die coach, acknowledged the breath-taking nature of the challenge facing his players.

"Chicago is probably the greatest team in the history of the game," said Riley after Sunday's Game 7 victory. "They've proven it by winning consistently. They've won four championships in six years.

"We don't have the right to say anything. We don't have the right to posture. We have to go there humble and be strong.

"No words are going to change how they play. We can't show any fear. We're playing one of the greatest teams of all time. We're going to have to play with a lot of heart."

For them, heart is easy, shooting is hard. Among his peers, Bull Coach Phil Jackson is known for his ability to force opponents out of their first option or two--and the Heat has only two, Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway.

Nor is the Heat duo hot. Mourning shot a tepid 46.6% against the Knicks, and Hardaway a streaky 40.2%. After that, it was strictly fire-and-pray.

"Shooting" guard Voshon Lenard had four single-figure games in the New York series and was at 33.9% from the field.

Jamal Mashburn had four and shot 36.2%.

P.J. Brown, a defensive specialist, had three in five games and shot 44%.

Nor does the bench offer much firepower. Ike Austin shot 40.5%, Dan Majerle 38.6%.

When the playoffs started, Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc were coming off injuries, and Jordan sagged under the burden of carrying the franchise. Jordan, now primarily a jump shooter, hasn't shot well all postseason.

Of course, no one struggles at his level. Players always spout that my-shot-was-off-so-I-did-other-things stuff, but Jordan actually does it. For the playoffs, he's averaging 30.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.8 steals and one block. He led the Bulls in rebounding in the Atlanta series.

Rodman seemed to revive in Game 5 against the Hawks, after disappearing in the series--although his benching in Game 3 seemed to give the team the tonic it needed.

They can probably get by without the real Rodman, if the real Jordan shows up. It's only the Heat.

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