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Bulls Road Toughness Takes Hit

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SALT LAKE CITY, UT — The Chicago Bulls of old treated the final minutes of every game _ especially in the playoffs _ as their own. No bad shots. Smart basketball. Nary a turnover.

They'd be just as imposing, poised and cocky on the road as they were at home. That confident approach in the closing stages has been an essential part of their championship parade through the '90s.

Now as the decade nears an end and perhaps Chicago's run at the top of the NBA does too, things have changed.

The Bulls have dropped four straight road playoff games, suddenly looking vulnerable down the stretch, when they used to appear invincible. Instead of making the big basket, they either give one up or commit uncharacteristic turnovers.

``It's a concern when you can't execute down the stretch,'' Michael Jordan admitted Thursday as the Bulls got ready for tonight's Game 2 of the NBA Finals at the ear-splitting Delta Center.

``It's an area we have to focus on. This late in the season, you can't worry about being tired. I'm sure there are a lot of people tired. Somehow we have to fight through it and we have to find other ways of getting people involved.''

There were various reasons why the Bulls lost the opener 88-85 Wednesday night after forcing overtime. They had three turnovers in the extra period. They couldn't control John Stockton. They relied too much on Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

``We had three chances in Indiana to win games on the road, and last night we didn't find a way to close,'' Toni Kukoc said. ``It's just one game.''

Pippen insists there is no reason for the Bulls to press.

They were in a jovial mood _ maybe not a sleepy Dennis Rodman, who spent the early morning Thursday making the rounds in Las Vegas _ despite losing a Game 1 in the finals for the first time since 1991.

``I don't think there's a concern until we get into a Game 6 or 7,'' Pippen said. ``The first game was anybody's game. We just didn't take care of what we had to do to beat this team.

``They're a very good home-court team and we feel like we're very strong on the road, but we didn't show our poise down the stretch.''

Utah has now beaten the Bulls three straight, including twice in the regular season.

``I don't feel like they have our number. I think they feel very lucky we weren't able to get the game. We had a lot of opportunities and our confidence is still there,'' Pippen said.

Jordan shot 13-of-29 and Pippen was just 7-of-19 in Wednesday's loss. Kukoc, the third option, was only 4-of-12, meaning three players combined for 60 of the team's 82 shots, making just 24.

``We have to shoot better and we expect Toni to have a better offensive game, to get four or six points more from Luc Longley and more from Ron Harper,'' Pippen said.

Jordan and Pippen also downplayed the perception, based on a TV shot, that they were arguing during a timeout in the fourth quarter.

Both claimed the decibel levels in the Delta Center made it impossible to talk without screaming.

``If anything, we were just yelling. It's loud in the arena and to be able to communicate you have to scream and yell back at each other. But everything was positive,'' Pippen said.

``It wasn't any bickering,'' Jordan added.

``You are talking about a veteran club that has been together a long time, and there is a certain understanding between the two of us, between all of us actually.''

(Copyright 1998 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-06-05-98 0155EDT

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