As statement games go, the only thing Sonics vs. Bulls absolutely screamed is the NBA needs a rule that prevents Dennis Rodman and Sam Perkins from covering each other.
It might be the worst haircut matchup the league has seen - bad enough in person, but even worse for people looking in from home, since most are still wondering if the picture on their TV sets is shot.
The bigger matchup, won easily by Chicago, 101-91, wasn’t much better. What a shame.
Tuesday night’s game at the United Center was the most promising one the NBA has offered so far. Almost the midpoint of the season, the NBA finalists of two years ago, one with the best record in the East (Bulls), the other with the NBA’s best (Seattle). It also featured the league’s best offensive player, Michael Jordan, against the best one-on-one defender, Gary Payton, at a time when both are playing well enough to be considered the clear front-runners for the MVP award.
But maybe that was the problem: They were on the same floor all night, but in each other’s face only rarely. So rarely, in fact, that at one point, Jordan was so surprised to find Payton guarding him that he joked, “Why are you here? I was doing just fine with everybody else.”
Fine might be an understatement, since Jordan torched that collection of Seattle defenders known as “everybody else” for all but a few of his 40 points. Hersey Hawkins got the assignment first, a decision Seattle coach George Karl defended by saying Hawkins was playing tough enough to merit a spot on the NBA’s All-Defensive team.
“He’s been covering a lot of the top scorers on opposing teams,” Karl said. “So it would be an insult to him to not start him on Jordan.”
For a little while, Karl looked like a genius. Jordan did not practice the past two days because of a cold and started slowly. He had only four points in the opening 10 minutes, a luxury the Bulls can afford now that Scottie Pippen is back in the lineup. But the second Karl tried to give Hawkins a breather, Jordan shredded his replacement, David Wingate, faster than a Veg-a-matic.
Whenever the Bulls acknowledge before a game that Jordan is hurt or sick - remember last season’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals against Utah - it means his opponents will feel much worse by the finish. And this one was no different. Wingate came in with two minutes left and got hit with three fouls before the period was out. Jordan shuttled between the foul line and the basket and suddenly he had 12 points.
Once Jordan got rolling, the truth is that two Gary Paytons covering him would have had all four hands full. He scored nine more before halftime, when the Bulls built a 10-point lead that Seattle couldn’t dent the rest of the way.
Jordan, the league’s top scorer, finished with 40, and afterward Karl repeated his line about Hawkins earning the assignment. Then he talked about alternating defenders with different degrees of size and quickness. “You’ve got to give Jordan different looks,” Karl said. “Then again, he’s so good it probably doesn’t matter.”
Important as this game might have seemed Tuesday night, it might be that Karl doesn’t want to know yet whether anybody can stop Jordan, and by extension, the Bulls. After all, the teams could meet again in June. And by holding something back, this “statement” game ended with at least one question still unanswered.