It may have taken a while, but as he has done on more than one occasion this season, Chicago Bulls rookie sensation Michael Jordan righted an early-season wrong last night. And he made the Washington Bullets pay, leading his team to a 100-91 National Basketball Association victory at Capital Centre.
Jordan was held to 16 points and sat on the bench for most of the fourth quarter in a 119-112 loss to the Bullets on March 11. But last night he scored 25 points in his return to the Centre before a crowd of 11,201 as the Bulls clinched a playoff berth. At 37-40, they are a half-game behind the 37-39 Bullets in the Eastern Conference's overall standings.
Jordan, the NBA's third-leading scorer at 28.1 points per game, was limited to nine points in the first half last night. After intermission, though, he scorched Washington with 14 third-quarter points. As a team, the Bulls made 13 of 16 shots in that period.
But despite falling behind by as many as 21 points in that quarter, when Chicago had an 11-0 run in a 2:55 span, the Bullets rallied to the point where they had a chance for a victory.
Spurred by the defensive play of Charles Jones (eight rebounds, six blocked shots) and offense from reserves Darren Daye and Don Collins (re-signed earlier in the day for the rest of the regular season), Washington cut the deficit to 89-83 with 4:46 to play in the game.
However, in the next 2:02 the Bullets collapsed under three turnovers, two of which resulted in steals by Jordan. And Washington moved into increased jeopardy of being passed by the Bulls in the race for seeding position in the eight-team Eastern Conference playoffs. The Bullets dropped from fifth to sixth place in the conference after New Jersey's victory over New York last night.
Jeff Malone led Washington with 22 points. Daye had 16 to go with six assists. But, unlike Jordan, whose 25 Chicago points were matched by Bulls forward Orlando Woolridge, they got little support. Cliff Robinson had a game-high 11 rebounds but shot just three of 13 from the field and scored seven points. That was one more than Gus Williams, who was three of eight from the field and played just 20 minutes.
"We were going nowhere with our starters," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue.
"In the second period, the second team got us back into the game but then we started the third quarter very weak. I'm always going to take the best shot to win, so I came back with that group."
But Shue's best shot couldn't come close to matching some of the swoops and scoops by Jordan. On more than one occasion, the Chicago guard played cat-and-mouse with, in no particular order, the Bullets, both sides of the rim and the laws of gravity.
"We knew that if we won tonight, we could clinch a playoff spot, so we came out pretty intense," Jordan said. "My main responsibility is to create something when the opportunity's there. Early in the game we weren't really getting the ball to the right people."
Malone, assigned to defend Jordan for much of the evening, said, "I thought I did a good job on him in the first half, overplaying him and things like that, but I was wondering when he was going to start doing it, making all his moves."
Malone knew the time was going to come eventually because of a little chat the two men had moments before the start of the game.
"I told him to take it easy on me because I've got a bad ankle," said Malone. "He told me that he couldn't, he had to come at me hard because I had killed him the last time they were here."
If such gaudy statistics as his per-game average and the fact that he has not failed to score in double figures in an NBA game (and has scored 20 or more points 68 times) aren't enough, Jordan has displayed a memory as long as an elephant's.
After being humbled at the hands of defensive specialist T.R. Dunn in an early-season loss in Denver, Jordan broke out with his first NBA triple-double of 35 points, 16 assists and 14 rebounds the next time the teams met. Before that, the rookie had missed a last-second shot against the Milwaukee Bucks that could have won the game. The next time those teams played, Jordan stuffed the Bucks for a then-career-high 37 points.
All this, of course, after more than a year of nonstop basketball that included an Olympic gold medal. Might he be tiring from the grind? Apparently not.
"It's not that tough if you love the game of basketball, and I do," said Jordan.