A proud team that had been criticized and scrutinized came crashing down on the Knicks today. And the Knicks cracked under the strain.
Making a strong statement that they are far from finished, the Chicago Bulls pounded the Knicks, 103-83, this afternoon at Chicago Stadium in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference championship series. The victory cut the Knicks' edge to 2-1 in the four-of-seven-game series, with Game 4 to be played here Monday afternoon.
The Bulls returned to their home court, and returned to the form that has won them back-to-back NBA titles. They embarrassed and frustrated the Knicks, who eventually lost their poise. John Starks was ejected with 9 minutes to play, receiving two technical fouls for charging after Michael Jordan. Although Starks accused Jordan of throwing an elbow and sticking a finger in his face, Starks's reaction was another indication of his temper getting the best of him.
The Bulls rattled the Knicks early with their full-court press, eventually forcing New York into 20 turnovers.
This was exactly the kind of performance the Knicks wanted to avoid. They were tentative offensively. They lost their aggressiveness, outrebounding Chicago just 35-30 after dominating that department in the previous two games. Other than Patrick Ewing (21 points), no Knick stepped up offensively. And New York's defense was porous, giving up 62 points in the first half.
After a collapse like this, the Knicks had a lot to think about.
The Bulls were simply too focused and too determined to let anything distract them today. They spent most of this week being criticized for their play and for complaining about the officiating in the series, then refused to talk at all.
For the first time in the series, Chicago displayed a balanced offensive attack that dissected the Knicks' defense. Five Bulls reached double figures, led by Scottie Pippen (29 points), who answered critics who have labled him a soft player. And the most dramatic lift came from John Paxson (14 points), the veteran Bulls guard, who made 5 of 7 shots, including two 3-pointers. Paxson had scored only 5 points in the two previous games combined.
Jordan (22 points, 11 assists) shot just 3 for 18 from the field, yet he was effective because he took a different approach. Instead of trying to carry Chicago's offense alone, Jordan turned into a playmaker. He drove to the basket, drew New York defenders to him, then passed to teammates for wide-open shots. Players like Paxson and Pippen smartly moved to open areas whenever Jordan penetrated, and the Knicks' defense could not adjust in time.
Today was the Knicks' turn to face tough questions. Riley, who has learned to live with the good and the bad that comes with Starks, downplayed the ejection. Besides, as poorly as the Knicks played, Riley had plenty of other things to worry about.
"I love John," Riley said. "All of us have things about us that might people don't agree with, but John's a great kid. Sometimes his emotions get the best of him, but he's trying, he's a competitor, and he's working on it. I'd want him in my foxhole any day."
The incident started when Starks made a hard karate-chop foul against Jordan. Starks was already upset about an offensive foul just called against him, not to mention the game itself.
Jordan took exception to the foul and started arguing with Starks, who then took several steps toward Jordan as if he wanted to fight. That cost Starks one technical foul. Then when Jordan walked away and the incident appeared to be over, Starks charged after Jordan again before being restrained by teammates. Starks got his second technical foul and he was ejected, as some of Starks's teammates looked at Starks angrily in front of the bench. It was Starks's second ejection of the playoffs. He was also tossed for head-butting Reggie Miller during the Indiana series.
Explaining his actions, Starks said, "Jordan put an elbow around my head and came onto my face. When you're a man, you can't let them do that."
Dominating the Knicks in a fashion rarely seen this season, the Bulls suantered into the locker room with a 62-43 halftime lead. Chicago did virtually whatever it wanted, leading by as many as 23 points and shooting 54 percent from the field.
The Bulls made several clever adjustments between Games 2 and 3. They set more weak-side picks for Paxson and Armstrong. Jordan (11 assists) drew two or three Knicks to him, then whipped passes to Paxson, Armstrong or Pippen for open shots.
Any time the Knicks allow 60 points in a half, and any time their bench is outplayed, they are in deep trouble. The Bulls did exactly what they wanted, and the Knicks simply had no answers. Now they have two days to regroup for Game 4.
Said Ewing, "I'm trying to to forget about this one as quickly as possible."
But the Bulls won't forget.