Present catching up to the past
The frenzy inspired by the Jordan-era Bulls isn't out of reach for this talented group
CHICAGO -- For one night, the comparisons were not unfair, the expectations not premature, the images neither hackneyed nor embellished.
For a moment there, you really could turn to your son or daughter or much younger friend and say: "This is it. Right here. This is how it felt 20 years ago. Remember this."
With the advantage of modern plumbing and smoke-free concourses, the United Center could have been the Chicago Stadium on Saturday night. Or from 1994 on, the very best that this place was before canned music and scoreboard entertainment drowned out the real thing.
And these Bulls could have been those Bulls as they trounced the Utah Jazz 118-100 in a game over almost before it began.
With the anticipation of a halftime celebration and the specter of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the rest of the 1990-91 NBA championship team literally hanging over them from a mid-court suite, these Bulls did what those Bulls used to do on their best nights.
With a mixture of lockdown defense, transition offense and deadly shooting, they did not merely dominate a much weaker opponent but thoroughly demoralized them, leading 17-2, 30-10 and 57-27 before the halftime festivities picked up where they left off.
"You guys are in store for a lot of other championships," Jordan told the crowd. "You look at this team tonight. Don't be surprised if you don't have six more coming "
The fans greeted him with the same deafening ovation they always did, "MVP" chants wafting through the place in an homage to both the old days and today, when Derrick Rose is bombarded by the chant as he was when he poured in 17 first-quarter points on 5-of-6 3-point shooting.
You ask the former champs for their opinions -- "How good is this team?" -- as if they have some secret insight that the rest of us are still lacking, as if reassurance is still needed.
"I was just talking to [John Paxson] and the guys, and you guys can be the best team in the East if you play the type of basketball you guys have been playing," said Jordan, majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. "I don't think it's going to take them seven years to win [the time it took Jordan to win his first championship]. I hope not. They have a good balanced team. And again, I think they have the MVP in the league.
"I think this kid has come into his own. He's matured quite a bit. When he came into the league, everybody said he had speed, he could get to the rim but he can't shoot. Now he can shoot the 3 as well as pull-up shots. He has very few flaws. I'm pretty sure the next thing they're going to say is he doesn't play defense or he can't handle a double-team. Time will tell. The kid works hard and I think he's a great piece for this franchise to be built but they have some other pieces that help them quite a bit."
We are not likely to overlook the other pieces, particularly on a night when the Bulls played without Carlos Boozer, sidelined by a sprained ankle. Luol Deng turned in still another special performance with 26 points, 7 boards, 6 assists and 3 steals. Joakim Noah did what Joakim Noah does on a nightly basis with 16 points and 9 rebounds. And the Bulls' bench, which has quietly become one of the best in the league, showed why with Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson combining for 33 of 41 points.
They don't stand around and watch Derrick Rose anymore. It's tough to remember when a different group sometimes did. And like the old Bulls teams that learned, sometimes painfully, why it didn't work to let Jordan take over, it is a pleasure to watch.
"Their offense this year is so much better than it has ever been," said Stacey King, a reserve in '90-91 and now a Bulls television analyst. "Two years under Vinny [Del Negro], it was basically pick-and-roll for Derrick and everybody get out of the way. There were a lot of guys who could score but they never really got the chance. Luol Deng was just standing around in the corners and shooting jump shots. Now he's cutting to the basket, he's become a slasher and a very, very reliable scorer in what Tom [Thibodeau's] system is designed to do.
"And just like the old triangle offense, everybody's involved, everybody touches the ball. Even though you may not shoot it, you honestly feel like you're part of the offense when you can get the ball in your hands and make a decision and that's what the triangle offense was when we played."
The comparisons extend to the defense, so different now from the Doberman days, when Horace Grant was asked to defend the point on the full-court press and then beat the offense downcourt, and yet so very similar.
"They get after you," King said. "They challenge shots, they rotate and if you remember our teams, that was one of the things we were very good at because we could gamble, play passing lanes, but we were athletic enough to recover. And when you thought you had an open shot, it was always contested. This team is the same way. They cover so much ground."
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Thibodeau pointed to the fact teams could be more physical in '90-91, but that changes to the rules allow his defenses to zone things up, to make it more free-flowing. But the unselfish, get-after-it component never goes out of style. You either get that or you don't. The old Bulls did. So too do these Bulls.
It inspires their fans now just as it always has. But it is Rose who, more often than not, brings them to their feet just as their last MVP still does.
"I watch this kid and I haven't seen anything like that in a long time," Grant marveled. "From a point guard perspective, who gets you eight, nine assists, to score like he does and as humble as he is, that's one guy I want to meet. I don't go and meet a whole bunch of guys but this kid I want to meet. Heck, I want a pair of shoes from him."
For one night, the magic of two eras seemed to meld together, the old guys supportive and gracious; the new guys appreciative and respectful.
"It's unbelievable to see how 20 years later, these guys get the love they get. Very deserving," Noah said. "When we're on the road and we get the love we get, a lot of it is because of what they did. The Bulls are a franchise that is recognized all over the world and it is because of those guys. To be a part of it is something very special.
"We're trying to do something special to respect the tradition."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.