Bulls have everyone’s number, and 70 beckons again
CHICAGO (AP) _ A year to the day after achieving what had been considered unreachable _ 70 wins in an 82-game NBA season _ the Chicago Bulls can do it again.
A victory Wednesday night at Miami would add yet another chapter to the history book the Bulls have been rewriting for two seasons.
``To be winning 70 would surpass my expectations. Quite honestly, I thought we would win 67, 68,″ Michael Jordan said. ``Certainly, this team is embarking on some greatness, some big numbers up there for someone to shoot at in the future. To be a part of that is a privilege.″
If the Bulls beat the Heat, or if they win Saturday’s regular-season finale at home against New York, ``we’ll back up a 72-win season with a possible 70, so the first year wasn’t a fluke,″ Jordan said.
On April 16, 1996, the Bulls got the 70th victory of their 72-10 season. Since then, they have won their fourth NBA title in six years and have overcome suspensions to Dennis Rodman and injuries to Rodman, Luc Longley and Toni Kukoc to take a 69-11 record into Miami.
``I congratulated the team,″ coach Phil Jackson said after Monday’s 117-100 victory over Toronto. ``The numbers they’ve run up ... it’s remarkable. Especially with the injuries.″
Even winning 69 is remarkable. The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers were the only team to get that many until the Bulls set a new standard last season.
How did Chicago do it again?
As usual, he leads the league in scoring. And he often has simply willed the Bulls to victory.
Even when they have played poorly _ even when he has played poorly _ he has been able to keep the team going. A perfect example was last Thursday’s game in New York, when Jordan scored 20 points in the fourth quarter to pull out a 105-103 victory.
``We’re a championship-caliber team,″ Jordan said. ``We find ways to win.″
Despite the late push for Utah’s Karl Malone as MVP, it’s hard to imagine any player being more valuable to any team than Jordan.
_A Pip of a sidekick.
Hampered by an ankle injury the second half of last season, Scottie Pippen had offseason surgery and got off to a slow start in November. But he has been playing well for months, averaging 20 points to go with his fine all-around game.
``On some of the nights I didn’t have it, Scottie was there to pick up the slack,″ Jordan said. ``It’s just a part of his maturity as a player.″
_Role players on a roll.
Ron Harper, who starts alongside Jordan, does most of the little things well. After missing 22 games early with a shoulder injury, Longley has gone on to have his best season at center.
Second-year forward Jason Caffey has been outstanding in place of Rodman, the cross-dressing, rebounding, book-writing thespian who has missed 25 games.
Steve Kerr is one of the NBA’s most feared outside shooters. Jud Buechler, a nonentity the first several months, has given the Bulls a lift since Kukoc went out with a foot injury. Randy Brown is a solid defender against quick guards.
And Brian Williams, signed April 2, has shown signs he will be an effective backup for Longley and Rodman in the playoffs.
``I don’t know if we’ve ever had this much depth,″ Pippen said. ``It’s very comforting to Michael and myself.″
_The coach who keeps everything together.
``We’ve dealt with a lot of injuries and diversions, but here we are closing in on 70 again,″ Jordan said. ``Phil has kept us focused all year long.″
_A clear and present focus.
``Phil never mentions 70 wins, and we never talk about it,″ Kerr said. ``One of the most impressive things about this team is that we just try to win every game. We know if we do that, we will win most of them.″
With Rodman and Kukoc due back for the playoffs, the Bulls will be heavily favored to capture their fifth championship of the ’90s.
``I don’t think we’ll allow any distractions to bother us,″ Jordan said. ``I’m very confident that we’ll put all that stuff aside, all the endorsements, the books and the dress-wearing, and get back to basketball.″