The Bulls beat the absolute brakes off the Magic in Game 1 of the ’96 Eastern Conference Finals 121-83. This team has largely cruised through the playoffs to this point, but their best basketball still lies ahead. Observations:
Not last year’s Bulls
The more I watch of this Bulls team, the more obvious it becomes how ahead of their time they were. The lineup of Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman is so modern in its defensive versatility and devastating fastbreak ability — a pace-and-space, switch-everything death lineup before it was cool.
And even with Luc Longley inserted at the center spot, every player 1-4 could switch anything defensively, make plays offensively and get out on the break, all with a more-than-solid post defender anchoring the middle. The Bulls largely shied away from doubling Shaquille O’Neal tonight with Longley in the game, and Big Luc held up admirably. At one point in the third quarter, he and O’Neal were level in scoring, and Longley graced this game with a number of thunderous dunks en route to 14 points on 7-for-9.
Moreover, this didn’t look like the 1995 Bulls, who fell to the Magic in the second round of the playoffs. They made that clear from the jump, bursting out to an 11-0 run to start the game and never letting up. Their league-best defense hadn’t looked this smothering in this entire run to this point (they swiped 12 steals tonight, ever a persistent, festering whirlwind of limbs) — from start to the absolute finish.
Ahmad Rashad reported just before tip that the key to the Bulls finding an advantage in this postseason’s go-around with Orlando was that they had their “edge” back. I’d say so.
Numbers that stood out
Normally, a 62-28 rebounding advantage imbues a blowout (this one was) in which the losing side misses a seismic amount of shots. But not so fast: The Magic shot 47.9% from the field and actually missed less shots than the Bulls (Orlando was 35-for-73 from the field, Chicago 53-for-96).
The difference was the offensive glass. Behind seven offensive rebounds (21 total) from Dennis Rodman, who feasted on tip-ins all night, the Bulls as a team corralled 20 offensive boards in this one. The Magic’s leading total rebounder was Shaquille O’Neal with six, and they had just 22 defensive rebounds as a team. These aren’t the bruising Knicks anymore — who, for the record, the Bulls dominated on the glass, as well.
Crisp passing from both sides, but especially the Bulls, also leapt off the screen. Much was made throughout this one of the Bulls’ focus on improving their ball movement from that series against New York. Put simply, they did. Though Jordan led the team in scoring with a pedestrian 21 points, they had six players in double-figures and every Bull who played scored. Separate behind the back feeds from Pippen, Kukoc, and Kerr, as well as savvy touch passes from Kukoc and Rodman (off rebounds) were beautiful.
And… Drumroll, please… The Bulls slung 37 assists. Jim Boylen would be proud.
Hey look, it’s that guy!
Big Penny had a game-high 38 points and was so damn smooth throughout.
Horace Grant was back in town one year after being carried off the floor in Orlando when the Magic knocked out the immediate post-Jordan-return Bulls in '95. He visibly struggled with an injured elbow throughout, then left the game in the third quarter after a collision with Shaq re-aggravated it. He won’t return this series.
This deafeningly loud suit donned by an injured Darrell Armstrong is splendid:
Bill Walton was featured in the NBC broadcast crew for this one, slightly softening the blow of saying goodbye to Tom Dore and Johnny “Red” Kerr for the remainder of this run. It was a relatively tame day from Walton but hopefully, he had his moments. Side note: NBC interviewed the Magic’s general manager in the United Center tunnel on Grant’s injury. How times have changed.
Not a guy, but these are… Something:
Game 2 Friday. Hopefully the Magic join us.
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