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By Ted Cox

"A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now."

Toni Kukoc has to be one of the tallest outside-shooting specialists in all of basketball. Launching a shot from behind the National Basketball Association three-point line, the left-handed Kukoc holds his right elbow slightly higher than is suggested in the how-to books--like a pinky arched a bit too much in the taking of a sip of tea--and he gives a dainty little jump with his legs. Then, from above his 6-11 height, he lofts what must be one of the highest shots in the world. The ball goes up and up, seems to halt for a moment at the peak of its trajectory--recalling the lovely description of the parabolic path traced by the rocket in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as the rocket's engines sputter out--and then it gracefully descends. When Kukoc is off, his shot can rattle off the rim like a bomb--and he came into the NBA finals having made but 3 of 36 three-point shots in the playoffs. But when all is right, the ball flutters through the net like a dove alighting on its nest.

Kukoc made his first three-pointer of the finals against the Seattle SuperSonics with about ten minutes to go in the first game. The ball went up and up and it was as if the entire stadium--the fans, the players, and the 800 or so members of the media, all well aware of Kukoc's long-distance drought--took in their combined breath and waited for the moment of truth. When the ball swished through the hoop it sent the Bulls off like a skyrocket. It wasn't that Kukoc himself provided the difference in the series; it was that Kukoc hitting his shots made the difference in everyone else: it thrilled the Bulls and demoralized the Sonics. When Kukoc--this time fouled by Shawn Kemp--hit another three on the Bulls' next possession and added a free throw for a four-point play, the Bulls moved out to a double-digit lead at 90-80. Minutes later, Ron Harper came away with a steal and raced the court for a layup and a 93-82 lead with 7:15 to play. Seattle coach George Karl strolled onto the court with his arms held aloft and his hands forming a T above his head. He looked distinctly like a fugitive surrendering after a long standoff.

Those were the only two three-point shots Kukoc made in the first game against the Sonics, but in the second last Friday he again hit a pair in the course of a minute to turn the game around, this time in the third period. (It's no accident that all of them came in the second half; he seems to have a marked preference for the east basket at the United Center.) First Kukoc hit a three over Sam Perkins to give the Bulls a five-point lead. Then, after a Seattle free throw, Randy Brown practically handed the ball to a wide-open Kukoc in the corner. He swished that shot as well, giving the Bulls a 72-65 lead with just under two minutes to play in the quarter and setting off a run by the Bulls. Scottie Pippen stole the ball and raced downcourt for a slam dunk. A Seattle miss prompted a Chicago fast break, with Michael Jordan on the dribble, and he slung a beautiful crosscourt pass through traffic to Kukoc cutting to the hoop for another dunk and a 76-65 lead that brought Karl back out on the court in his pose of surrender. "You're playing a team that always has a five- or six-minute spurt that you have trouble staying up with," Karl said afterward. He hadn't seen anything yet.

That five-minute spurt came at the start of Sunday's third game, in Seattle, and it lasted the entire first quarter. Kukoc, who won the NBA's sixth man award this season as the best bench player in the league, started in place of the injured Harper. When center Luc Longley hit his first shot, and Kukoc followed by nailing his first--a runner from just inside the three-point line--and Jordan then swished an open three to give the Bulls a 7-0 jump on the Sonics, the rout was on. The Bulls opened a 34-12 lead--oh yes, a Kukoc three-pointer was in there--weathered a Seattle run in the second quarter to take a 62-38 lead into halftime, and beat back a more sustained run in the third quarter to reclaim the initiative in the fourth and win going away, 108-86. The Bulls shifted tactics in that game, double-teaming Shawn Kemp, the only Seattle player to give them trouble in Chicago, which took Kemp out of the game and threw the Sonics out of sync. Yet this was an instance where the Bulls' temperament did even more damage to the opponent than their tactics did. "This is the first time I've seen Chicago with killer eyes in this series," a dazed Karl said afterward. It wasn't likely to be the last, and by the time this goes to press the series probably will be over.

Tactics played a part in the series, and the Bulls were clearly prepared for the Sonics' swarming defense--on their very first possession of the first game, Jordan got the ball down low with his back to the hoop, drew the double team, and passed out to an open Harper, who hit a three-pointer, all of this done with the rhythmic dispatch of something drawn up on the blackboard by coach Phil Jackson. But what was most impressive about the first three games was the Bulls' feel for when to seize control of a contest--right away in the case of the third game--and their ability to retain a lead once seized even when they weren't playing their best.

The first game opened with the Bulls pounding the ball in to Longley, who, after a Herculean series of playoff labors against Alonzo Mourning, Patrick Ewing, and Shaquille O'Neal, was suddenly set free against a team without a single seven-footer. He scored 8 in the first quarter, as the Bulls took a 24-18 lead, and finished with 14 for the game. From the Sonics' perspective, however, the first critical sequence took place in the second quarter, when token goon Frank Brickowski was sent into the game to goad Dennis Rodman into disqualification shortly after Rodman had picked up a technical foul. Brickowski, however, was the player disqualified, picking up two quick fouls and two technical fouls in two brief minutes to get the heave-ho. The Bulls turned Brickowski's self-immolation into five points--all on free throws--to give them a 49-43 lead on the way to a 53-48 advantage at halftime. Kukoc got going in the third quarter before raining threes in the fourth, and Jordan provided the punctuation mark with a lovely high-arching, fallaway jumper of his own, adding a little flourish in front of the Seattle bench as it swished through the hoop to give the Bulls a 103-88 lead on the way to a 107-90 final.

The second game was considerably less pretty, although Jordan and Pippen opened it looking good. Pippen, guarded at the outset by Seattle's rash point guard Gary Payton, the NBA's defensive player of the year, faked him into the air and hit a long jumper from the top of the key to give the Bulls a 14-13 lead. Jordan spun out of a double team to hit a turnaround jumper down the baseline, then added a crisp shot from the outside on the way to an 11-point period. Yet the Sonics, playing fluidly for the first time in the series, claimed a 27-23 lead at the quarter. It was then that the Bulls, clearly feeling the effects of playing two games in three nights after eight days off, dragged the Sonics into the mud to slog it out. Jackson sent out a lineup of Harper and four bench players--Kukoc, Jud Buechler, Steve Kerr, and John Salley--to give the starters a blow, to take the Sonics' best punch, and, most importantly, to regain control of the tempo with their relatively cautious, deliberate, and plodding style of play. That they did, and when the starters returned, the lead teetered back and forth before Jordan's three gave the Bulls a 46-45 advantage at halftime.

Kukoc's pyrotechnics led to a 76-65 Bulls lead through three quarters, but things began to go awry when Jordan missed two free throws--as sure a sign of weariness as a pitcher issuing his first walk in the seventh inning--with the Bulls ahead 78-67 but still over ten minutes to play. With the redoubtable referee Hue Hollins giving the Sonics the benefit of the doubt on every call--this after he had blown an obvious Kemp goaltending violation on a Kukoc shot in the first half, thus drawing outrage from Bulls assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers and chants of "Hue suck" from the fans--Seattle closed the gap. Kemp, the one Seattle player to show up for both of the first two games, completed a three-point play to bring the Sonics within four at 85-81, then added another to make it 88-84. From there the game turned into an ugly defensive tussle and a battle of free throws. Jordan pulled himself together to make two at the line, but then the Bulls rapidly disintegrated. Kukoc made one of two with 16 seconds to play, and two Kemp free throws later Pippen--with a 91-88 lead and a chance to ice the game--missed a pair. Rodman, however, tied up Perkins on the rebound, finally won the jump ball after two poor tosses by the referee, and was fouled. He missed the first shot but made the second for the 92-88 final. The game had suited Rodman's style of play, and he'd excelled. Nobody was making shots in the fourth quarter, yet as Karl put it afterward, speaking of Kukoc, "He kept missing shots, but every shot he missed I think Rodman rebounded."

Rodman finished with 20 rebounds, a finals-record-tying 11 at the offensive end. And as out of sync as the Bulls were offensively, at the other end they played sturdy team defense. "When we have been in games [where we're] in danger of losing our offensive continuity and chemistry, our defense steps it up and controls the opposition," Jordan said. "We feel very confident, when the game is very close, that defensively we can clamp it down. It's a matter of understanding what it takes."

"I think it's from experience," Pippen added. "I think we realize that anytime we can keep a game close our experience can take over. We've been in this situation so many times that if we can keep ourselves in the game we're very confident that we're going to win it."

That made the third game a struggle between two dynamics. The TV schedule called for only one travel day to Seattle, a short span in which the relatively inexperienced Sonics needed to make adjustments on the fly while the older Bulls needed to recover physically while crossing two time zones. The Bulls arrived, of course, with their "killer eyes." They were determined to seize control of the game early, make the Sonics expend energy trying to catch up, and then whip them in the trenches in the fourth quarter. Who knew the Sonics wouldn't even bother to show?

It was a blitzkrieg. After the Bulls broke out at 7-0, a Jordan jumper gave them their first double-digit lead at 13-2, Kukoc's three made it 18-4, and a Jordan three made it 30-12; neither of those long shots was contested. Jordan stole a pass down the sideline and while falling out of bounds dished a behind-the-back, no-look pass to Pippen for a breakaway dunk. Pippen responded with a pass to Rodman on a two-on-one for a jam to make it 34-12. Jordan was a force of nature. He scored 15 straight points for the Bulls in the second quarter on his way to 27 for the half. The Sonics rallied in the third quarter with the swarming defense they should have deployed at the outset, but at the end of the period they were still down 14, and Jordan soon ran the margin back to 20. Jordan wound up with 36 points, Longley 19, Kukoc 14, and Pippen 12.

As in the glory days of three straight championships, the Bulls didn't merely defeat their opponents, they crushed their confidence. Before the series began, the Sonics looked to have athletic players who could give the Bulls fits--at least in one or two games. Yet the Bulls left them questioning their own abilities. The Bulls did it this time, however, with only the irrepressible Rodman playing mind games. Otherwise the damage was done entirely in the course of action. The old Bulls called to mind the Bobby Fischer quote: "I like to see 'em squirm." These Bulls have had the same killer instinct, but without the sadistic streak. In the world of sport that may set them apart even more than their 72 victories in the regular season.

In the end, victory was as inevitable as gravity.

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