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Chicago plays into Suns' hand

It was Monday morning in Illinois suburbia. Deerfield, the upscale community where the NBA-champion Bulls train, is a 40-minute drive and sociological worlds away from Chicago Stadium's combative inner-city neighborhood.

Michael Jordan was rubbing drowsy eyes. "I've only had a nap," said the Babe Ruth of basketball. "After playing three overtimes, I still need some overtime sleep."

Jordan, standing like a 6-foot-6 king bee in a hive of reporters at the Bulls' spiffy practice complex, flashed back to Sunday night's 63-minute Game 3 marathon, a 129-121 Chicago loss that allowed the Phoenix Suns a whiff of NBA Finals hope.

"We played like individuals rather than as a team," Jordan said of the Bulls. "After going up 2-0 in Phoenix, we felt too comfortable coming home to Chicago. Our focus got diluted. Our intensity dropped. We had shot after shot that could've locked up Game 3, but we kept missing. We kept failing."

Who but Michael Jordan could be considered a 44-point failure. That's how many the willowy whiz from North Carolina and Nike scored.

But he did shoot a lot.

If Jordan had made all 49 of his attempts _ nine three-point chances, 34 deuces and a half-dozen free throws _ he would've scored 101 points.

Nobody's perfect.

"I didn't realize I shot so much," Michael said the morning after, "but I did think they were all good opportunities. I just didn't make enough. My legs got tired. There was mental fatigue as the game went into so many overtimes. Just like anybody who misses a string of shots, I lost some confidence."

Jordan wasn't eager to practice Monday. "I'm more in need of going back to bed," said the one-man industry who earns almost $40-million a year in salary and endorsements. Michael wore not Bulls equipment but his own long, multicolored walking shorts plus a shirt to match. Nike sneakers, of course.

He also wore a smallish, funny looking, baseball-style cap that resembled a leftover from the 1919 Chicago Black Sox. But if Michael's wearing it, don't bet it won't become national fashion.

His power is unique.

Phoenix coach Paul Westphal used a startling bit of defensive strategy against pointmeister Jordan. Kevin Johnson, the 6-1 Suns point guard who desperately struggled in losing Games 1 and 2 at America West Arena, was assigned to stalk Michael.

A mismatch?

"I've never been guarded by a player 5 inches shorter," Jordan said. "It was a gimmick, but I guess it worked." Michael thinks he and the Bulls were suckered by rookie coach Westphal, a former NBA guard with the Suns, Celtics, Sonics and Knicks.

"Phoenix wanted me, seeing I was up against a little guy like K.J., to be more offensive-minded than ever," Jordan said in a sleepy but effusive post-mortem. "That would mean more excluding of my teammates from the offense."

Bingo!

"My main job was to cut off Michael's incredibly quick first step," Johnson explained, "encouraging him to shoot jumpers rather than driving for the basket. Then, if Jordan moved in close to the basket, trying to post me up, I got double-team help."

Jordan was enticed to hoist 43 shots from the field. "I felt I should be able to score anytime I wanted against K.J.," Michael said. Jordan's the greatest basketball player ever, but No. 23 went into a 1-for-10 shooting plunge in Sunday night's fourth quarter. When it counted most, Michael missed 13 of his last 17 attempts.

A flop, with 44 points.

When the king of Chicago wasn't firing, the Bulls' 6-7 crown prince was. Scottie Pippen had 35 attempts, good for just nine baskets. Jordan would admit, "I had trouble getting to sleep after the game, recalling all the chances we had to put Phoenix away.

"Charles Barkley is now saying Game 3 was one of the greatest NBA playoff shows ever. Charles, K.J., Dan Majerle and the rest of the Suns did seize an opportunity, but from our perspective it's difficult to classify Sunday night as a classic. All the Bulls had to do down the stretch was play normal basketball and we'd be up 3-zip and talking about a sweep."

But it's only a 2-1 edge for Chicago, with Game 4 coming up Wednesday night at the Bulls' 70-year-old stadium. Just across Madison Street, a new 20,000-seat arena is rising, due for christening as home to the Bulls and NHL hockey Blackhawks in 1994.

"When the Suns came to Chicago, down 0-2 in the NBA Finals, they had the feeling of being buried in the Grand Canyon," Jordan said. "Now that they got away with a win in Game 3, the Suns probably think they've climbed halfway out of their big hole. But to me, they're still in it."

Jordan and the Bulls now feel challenged. Phoenix has their attention. Game 4 ought to be fun, even if it doesn't go three overtimes. Michael was told that Kevin Johnson had specifically requested to guard him. "Well," said the sleepy giant, "I hope K.J. requests it again in Game 4."

In the games at Phoenix, the 6-8 Majerle was assigned to defend Jordan. "Nobody really guards Michael," said Westphal, "they just try to keep him from scoring 100. Jordan is so quick and jumps so high, he can always get a shot."

But, once K.J. was switched to M.J., it freed up Majerle's mind to concentrate more on offense. "My new and less-taxing defensive assignment was Pippen," the fifth-year pro from Eastern Michigan said after the Suns' shoot-around Monday at Chicago Stadium.

"You can leave Scottie alone at times, helping to double-team some other Bull. It's not like with Michael, who you can't afford to lose. I could suddenly think more about my own scoring opportunities.

"In the third quarter, I found myself wide open for a couple of three-point attempts. I hit them and my confidence soared. I kept firing and making threes. It was really fun."

Majerle, who made eight threes in a playoff game against Seattle, hit six bombs as Phoenix was pinning the Bulls to their own deck. "It's funny, because I never tried any outside shots until my senior year in college," said the 1988 U.S. Olympian. "Then or now, I've never exactly been a Michael Jordan. I grew up playing strictly under the basket."

Although averaging 38 points a game in high school, Majerle had attracted no interest by the end of his junior season from the Big Ten Conference or other big-name colleges in his home Michigan area. "I signed with Eastern prior to my senior year and never regretted it," said the man they call Thunder Dan.

"My nickname is from college," he explained. "We had another good player at Eastern named Ervin Levy. He was fast, so they called him Lightning Levy. I played a different brand of hoops, so they slapped the Thunder tag on me."

Majerle is a celebrated Phoenix heartthrob, one of the few bachelors among the Suns' more visible players. He is the strong, silent, John Wayne type and owns a downtown restaurant-saloon called Majerle's Grill. Located two blocks from America West Arena, it is doing huge nightly business.

Even if Thunder Dan is no Michael Jordan.

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