The Chicago Bulls, given chance after chance by the Indiana Pacers, will have a chance at their third straight NBA title.
The two-time defending champions, playing their first Game Seven in four years, overcame surprisingly poor shooting by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with timely offensive rebounding in an 88-83 victory that vaulted the Bulls into the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz.
"We definitely got the effort from our players, but the difference in the game was that we got beat to loose balls and on the boards," Pacers coach Larry Bird said. "We've talked about offenssive boards all year. Tonight we were just overmatched. The number of offensive rebounds they got ripped our hearts out."
Even with league rebound leader Dennis Rodman limited to six boards, the Bulls held a 50-34 edge on the glass. Pippen pulled down 12 and Jordan and Luc Longley grabbed nine apiece. Pippen and Jordan combined for 11 offensive rebounds.
"Rebounding is a huge part of our offense," Phil Jackson said. "One of the reasons we do well in that area is we have a lot of people around the boards. We have a sense of just being there when the shots are going up."
The Bulls had more to lose and it showed in the early going. Everyone appeared tentative, including Jordan, who was playing in his first Game Seven in six years. Chicago quickly fell behind as Indiana calmly executed its offense.
Jordan's follow shot 91 seconds into the game gave Chicago a 5-4 lead, but Indiana scored the next 10 points. Smits and Dale Davis had four apiece and a turnaround jumper by Davis extended the lead to 14-5 with 7:45 remaining.
Even after a timeout, the Bulls continued to struggle and the Pacers, who made their first eight shots, widened the advantage to 20-7 on a free throw by Jackson with 5:41 left, silencing the sellout crowd at the United Center.
Rose's free throw opened the second quarter before the Bulls finally snapped out of it and got back in the game with their defense, rebounding and bench. Kukoc scored and Jordan had a pair of baskets around a three-pointer by Kerr to forge a 28-28 tie.
"We were able to win this game with defense and that's been a keynote for us throughout our championship runs," Jordan said. "I give our bench a lot of credit. Kerr gave us some huge minutes."
The Bulls widened a three-point halftime lead to 69-61 behind Kukoc, who was 5-of-5 in the third quarter, including a trio of three-pointers. But Chicago went scoreless over the final 2:17 of the period, as Dale Davis made free throws around a layup by Game Six hero Travis Best to cut the deficit to 69-65.
"Kukoc is the guy tonight who really stepped up big for us," Jackson said. "Without his contribution and Steve Kerr's open looks off the bench, we don't stay in this game."
Jordan ended Chicago's 10-shot dry spell of 6:44 with a follow shot with 7:53 remaining. Smits made a free throw before Jordan drove for a dunk and drew a foul with 7:28 to go. His free throw gave the Bulls the lead, but Smits converted a three-point play and Antonio Davis made a foul shot before the game's telling sequence.
McKey stripped Jordan on a drive and a jump ball between the 7-4 Smits and 6-5 Jordan was called. Smits tipped the ball straight to Pippen, who found Kerr for a three-pointer that tied it at 77-77 with 6:07 left.
Antonio Davis made a banker, but Jordan tied it with two foul shots and Pippen made a jumper after his offensive rebound to give the Bulls the lead for good at 81-79 with 4:45 remaining. A jumper by Longley - his only basket of the game - moved the margin to four points with 3:25 left.
Indiana's Reggie Miller scored 22 points, but none over the last 15:30. He attempted just one shot in the fourth quarter -- an airball that Antonio Davis converted into the Pacers' only hoop off an offensive rebound with 2:05 left, cutting the deficit to 85-83.
After Miller's miss, Pippen beat him down the floor and threw in a running hook as Davis fouled out. Pippen missed the free throws, but Jordan rebounded, killing valuable time.
Indiana's Derrick McKey forced a three-pointer and Harper was fouled with 8.9 seconds left, making a free throw to seal the seventh win of the series by the home team.
"This series and this game was a test of our will to determine if we're still championship caliber," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. "We were able to answer that in a positive way tonight."
The Bulls held the Pacers scoreless over the final 2:05 and reached the Finals for the sixth time in eight years. They have never lost in the championship round and begin a rematch with the Jazz on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City.
"Not having home court is going to definitely be to Utah's advantage," Jordan said. "But nobody has taken anything away from us yet. We're still the champions and that's how we're going to think when we go into this series."