With the majority of 18,869 pairs of eyes at Chicago Stadium tonight focused upon Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls' second-year guard did not disappoint, scoring 31 points against the Washington Bullets.
But unheralded guard John Paxson was the surprise star for Chicago, scoring 19 points in the second half and 23 overall to help lead the Bulls to a 105-103 victory that clinched the eighth and final NBA Eastern Conference playoff spot for them.
Washington (38-43) lost an opportunity to move a giant step closer to clinching third place in the Atlantic Division and the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Because of the loss, the Bullets will have to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers Sunday at Capital Centre and New Jersey will have to lose in Boston for Washington to face the 76ers in the opening round of the playoffs. If the Bullets lose or New Jersey wins, Washington will face the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening best-of-five series.
"Now we're in a must-win situation on Sunday, and we didn't want to be there," said Bullets forward Cliff Robinson. Robinson was one of four outstanding performers for the visitors, scoring 23 points and adding 13 rebounds. Guard Jeff Malone scored 24 points, four more than backcourt mate Gus Williams. Veteran Tom McMillen came off the bench to score 17 points.
However, that wasn't enough to overcome Jordan, who scored many of his 31 points from incredible angles or after double pumps and hesitations. But that's almost run of the mill for the all-star guard, playing in his 14th game since recovering from a broken bone in his left foot.
The bigger surprise was Paxson, heretofore noted almost exclusively as the younger brother of Portland Trail Blazers all-star Jim Paxson. Tonight, if little brother didn't steal the show from Jordan, he stole the game from the Bullets.
"I played real hard tonight," he said. "Manute Bol blocked me once, it got to me and I just got going. There seemed to be opportunities for me tonight."
"Paxson consistently hurt us the most tonight," said the Bullets' Kevin Loughery, coaching his first game at Chicago Stadium since being fired by the Bulls last May after two seasons here. "You expect Jordan to do incredible things; Paxson you don't think will have such a big night."
By the same token, it's hard to expect Washington to go without a field goal for the final 2:17 of a game, particularly with such sharpshooters as Malone present. Yet that's what happened tonight, a jumper by Robinson representing the last basket for the Bullets.
At the time, the Bullets led, 102-98, but they were able to add only a skinny free throw to their total. In the team's frustrating spell, Malone misfired on three occasions.
"One a drive into the lane I knew was short, but the other two . . . " Malone said. "I wanted to take the shots. They looked good -- I saw the rotation on the ball. They felt good, they were the shots that I normally take, they just didn't go in. I guess it happens that way sometimes."
Even so, the Bullets still had an opportunity to come away with a victory. Down by what would be the final margin, they had the ball with seven seconds to play. Trying to inbound the ball, Dan Roundfield had his pass stolen by Jordan, who then lost the ball out of bounds on a wide-open drive to the basket. The play knocked three seconds off the clock, though, and moved the Bullets another 45 feet away from the hoop. A second, longer pass also was intercepted by Jordan.
"This is a great opportunity for us," he said after the game. "After the struggle we've had all year, getting into the playoffs will be a big confidence builder for us."
Lured out in part by a fan appreciation promotion, the Bulls' largest crowd of the season helped push the atmosphere above the regular-season norm. Throughout the night, both teams played as if they were engaged in a postseason series, complete with pushing, flying elbows and tough-guy stares.
"It was starting to feel like the playoffs underneath the boards," said Robinson. "You could feel it; it's time to get ready to bump and grind."
If that is indeed the case, the Bullets have some serious preparations to make. Tonight, Chicago outrebounded Washington by 52-42, with 23 coming on the offensive end of the floor.
"It's not like we're getting beat in rebounding by a little bit every night -- it's double figures," said Loughery. "That's a real downer, and I'm not sure that the correction factor is there physically for us."
*76ers 130, Pacers 122: Rookie Terry Catledge scored a season-high 30 points and Charles Barkley had 29 points and 19 rebounds in Philadelphia as the 76ers defeated Indiana for their sixth straight victory.
Trailing by 99-97, Indiana took a 100-99 lead on Herb Williams' three-point play with 9:20 left in the game. But the 76ers scored the next six points, capped by Catledge's basket with 8:17 left, and led by at least five the rest of the way.
The 76ers led by 72-68 at halftime as Catledge scored 20 points.
Julius Erving finished with 27 points for the 76ers as he passed 29,000 points for his career. Barkley's rebound total pushed him past 1,000 rebounds this season.
Herb Williams led Indiana with 28 points and Ron Anderson had 18.
*Pistons 108, Knicks 95: Kelly Tripucka scored eight of his team-high 20 points during a decisive 19-2 streak to open the third quarter as Detroit coasted to victory in New York.
Detroit finished the regular season with its second consecutive 46-36 record, third best in the team's 29-year history. The Pistons, third in the Central Division, will face the Atlanta Hawks in the opening round of the playoffs Thursday.
Gerald Wilkins scored a game-high 25 points to lead New York.
Detroit's Kent Benson was ejected from the game early in the fourth quarter for punching Wilkins.
*Celtics 117, Cavaliers 104: Kevin McHale scored 30 points and he and Dennis Johnson had four points each in a 10-0 second-quarter run as Boston defeated visiting Cleveland.
Boston led by 50-46 when it launched its 10-0 spurt on a jumper from the top of the key by Johnson with 3:47 left in the first half. Boston led by 66-51 at intermission and stayed ahead by 10 to 20 points the rest of the game.
The Cavaliers' loss and Chicago's victory over Washington eliminated them from playoff contention.
With its 16th victory in 18 games overall, Boston extended its NBA record for consecutive home victories in one season to 30. The Celtics, who boosted their home mark to 39-1, can set an NBA record for best home winning percentage by beating New Jersey Sunday. The Rochester Royals were 33-1 at home in 1949-50.
The Cavaliers, who lost their 21st consecutive road game against Boston, were led by World B. Free with 28 points and Roy Hinson with 22.
*Trail Blazers 131, Warriors 130: Clyde Drexler drove for a layup with nine seconds remaining to give Portland the lead and teammate Jim Paxson blocked a shot with one second left to preserve the Trail Blazers' victory in Oakland.
Paxson, a 6-foot-6 guard, blocked a shot attempt by 7-foot Joe Barry Carroll. The Warriors, playing their final home game of the season, protested vigorously that Carroll was fouled on the play, as the Trail Blazers quickly raced off the court.
Drexler finished with 28 points, including six in the final 1:10 of the game. Paxson scored 22, including 12 in the final quarter.
The Warriors were led by guard Eric (Sleepy) Floyd, who matched his season-high with 32 points. Carroll scored 24 points and blocked seven shots.