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Russell A Thorn To Jordan

Associated Press

The Utah player defending Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals is so little known that even Jordan couldn’t seem to remember his first name.

“Is it Bryon or Byron?” Jordan asked.

As usual, Bryon Russell didn’t back down. “I can get him back,” he said. “Is it Michael or Michelle?”

After the last two games, Jordan should at least remember the face.

Since Russell was switched to guard Jordan after Game 2, Michael has not been his usual awesome self, and the Jazz have beaten Chicago twice here to pull even at 2-2.

Jordan has shot just 41 percent from the field (20 for 49) at Salt Lake City. After scoring 31 and 38 in the first two games, he’s had 26 and 22.

But forget about Jordan crediting Russell, or anyone, for stopping him.

“His defense is very active, but I really can’t see how he’s eliminating anything I want to do,” Jordan said. “I have faced, obviously, better defensive players… . I’m not saying he’s not a good defensive player. I just don’t think that he’s a problem.”

Russell is relishing the challenge.

“It probably makes a name for myself, plus this is something I can tell my grandchildren and children when they grow up, that I got a chance to stick the best player in the world,” Russell said.

Russell, patiently correcting reporters who repeatedly call him “Byron,” has no illusions about forever holding down a player he calls “a basketball god.”

He’s far from awed, though.

“I’m just confident, period,” Russell said. “I know I’m guarding Mike. I’m not backing down from any challenge he puts up.”

If history is any indicator, Jordan will use his struggles of the past two games as motivation for tonight.

“He can explode for 60 as long as we win,” Russell said.

The official word

Jordan was stunned after he failed to take a single free throw in Sunday’s 78-73 loss.

Musing that perhaps the officials just didn’t see the fouls, Jordan said he has a plan to make sure they do in tonight’s crucial Game 5: Driving to the basket every chance he gets.

Prior to Sunday, Jordan had scored 24 of his 95 points in three games on foul shots, attempting 33 free throws.

Officiating also has been a target of Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who said referees were missing calls on Utah’s “illegal defenses.”

Utah has been called for playing a zone-like defense just once. The Bulls have been whistled six times, twice earning technical fouls.

Reason for the format

The Bulls can blame the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers for the 2-3-2 format and their seven-day stay in Salt Lake City.

In the previous two rounds, the Bulls played the first two games at home, then two on the road before returning to Chicago.

The NBA changed its Finals format after 1984, when it became apparent the Celtics and Lakers were fatigued from constant cross-country flights in the 2-2-1-1-1 format.

Streaks at stake

A victory by Utah tonight would hand the Bulls their first three-game losing streak with Jordan on the team since the opening three games of the 1990-91 season.

Meanwhile the Jazz, who carry a 23-game home win streak into Game 5, are trying to become the first home team to sweep the middle three games of the Finals since the league made the format switch.

Around the league

Detroit Pistons coach Doug Collins is expected to sign a new contract today after reviewing language in the deal that was finalized Tuesday.

The Detroit News reported that under the deal Collins would remain coach and general manager for two more years at a salary between $3 million and $4 million per year. He’s completed two years of a five-year contract worth $7.5 million.

Former Vancouver Grizzlies head coach Brian Winters will be the top assistant coach of the Nuggets, head coach Bill Hanzlik said.

“Brian is knowledgeable. He’s a great analyzer of the game, and he’s a great person. Those are qualities I was looking for,” Hanzlik said.

Former Boston Celtics teammate Rick Carlisle and former Charlotte coach Dick Harter were hired as assistants by new Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird.

“They both have a lot of experience and I needed that,” said Bird, in his first coaching assignment.

For the past three seasons, both have been assistants at Portland.

The Philadelphia 76ers named ex-Ohio State coach Randy Ayers their physical conditioning coach.

Kevin Johnson has said he’s finished playing for the Phoenix Suns, although a second meeting with the team’s management is further proof his decision isn’t final.

Owner Jerry Colangelo has said he wants Johnson, a three-time All-Star guard, to return for another season.

The 1996 first-round draft pick of the Denver Nuggets, Efthimios Rentzias, reportedly is on the verge of signing a three-year contract to play for S.C. Barcelona in Spain.

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