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Bulls did not plan for return trip to Phoenix

Worst thing, Phil Jackson suggested, about his Chicago Bulls returning to Phoenix for settlement of the NBA Finals is, "I'll not be able to use my tickets for a Grateful Dead concert at Soldier Field."

Not really.

It's the resurgent Phoenix Suns who have become the "Grateful Living," heading to a sixth round of pro basketball's world championship fight. Chicago coach Jackson has to be wondering if the Bulls can still kill.

They're up 3-2 but gasping.

"It's eating on my conscience," said 6-foot-10 Horace Grant, whose Game 5 disappearance all but merited putting his photo on milk cartons. "Friday was one of the worst nights of my life."

Grant's 17-point average in the Finals disintegrated into a one-point personal scoring calamity as Chicago muffed a home-court opportunity to clinch its third consecutive NBA championship.

"My jump shot went rotten," said the Georgian with the white-rimmed goggles. "When I tried to go to the backboard, a Phoenix guy always seemed to get in my way. Everything went wrong. I feel responsible for Chicago Stadium's great fans not being able to celebrate another championship."

Last week, the Bulls went to Phoenix and frustrated Suns point guard Kevin Johnson while strong-arming the desert darlings in Games 1 and 2. No road team had gone up 2-0 in the NBA Finals.

People talked about a 4-love sweep.

Even when Phoenix came to thunderous old Chicago Stadium and stunningly outgutted the Bulls in a three-overtime Game 3, the tall soldiers from Jackson's multimillionaire army remained solid favorites to not leave home before achieving their "Three-peat."

Never happened.

Chicago won Game 4, but the Bulls tended to slack at the shank of nearly every quarter. Just like old times, Michael Jordan was a solo ox pulling the Windy City wagon, scoring 55 points in a Game 4 success.

"We're not losing Game 5," Jordan proclaimed Thursday. "If we're forced to go back to Phoenix's arena, my teammates will go without me. I'm done after Friday night. I'm not going to Arizona."

Michael wasn't smiling, but lucky for the Bulls he was joking. Something is becoming clear: If you take Jordan away from Chicago, the Bulls look a lot like the Miami Heat or Los Angeles Clippers.

"Jordan takes a Bulls roster that is otherwise a bunch of average NBA guys," five-time NBA Finals winner Magic Johnson said, "and No. 23 makes Chicago a team good enough to win two championships with a chance for a third."

Jackson begs to differ.

"I think that, while Michael Jordan is unquestionably the best basketball player of all-time, the rest of my people are also pretty impressive," the Bulls' well-read coach said.

"Scottie Pippen is a 20-point scorer who plays tremendous defense. Horace Grant had a bad night but he's a winner. B.J. Armstrong is a solid point guard. There are others of championship caliber." He didn't mention 7-1 Bill Cartwright, perpetrator of the ugliest jump shot in NBA history.

In tonight's Game 6 at Phoenix, the Bulls have another chance to prove Jackson right before a more-hopeful-than-ever America West Arena crowd. Otherwise the Bulls must deal with a Game 7, and by Wednesday night Chicago's team could be drowning in self-doubt.

"Oh, yeah, I'll show up," Jordan said of Game 6. "We're tired, but everybody on both teams is worn down both physically and mentally by now. Even when the desire, heart and energy are there, the body and mind don't always act as one."

Before the tipoff in Game 1, all the ado was about the best two basketball players on Earth: (1) Jordan the incomparable Bull and (2) Charles Barkley the outrageous Sun. They have lived up to every media adjective, every individual boast and every TV promo.

Jordan is averaging 42.6 points and Barkley, despite a bum elbow, is scoring 28.6. They also rebound, play tough defense and function as team leaders and motivators.

"Michael is the greatest, and I'm next," Barkley said with characteristic shortage of humility. "We've entertained the world, but now it's time for our teams to finally settle these Finals.

"Since we're back in Phoenix, I'm feeling like the Suns will be the ones who make history by coming back from 1-3 to win the trophy."

Jackson wouldn't be grateful.