His partners in the ratings game desperately wanted to salvage some pride on their home floor, but Michael Jordan was even more determined to have at least three days off. He was willing to work every angle, possible and impossible, to secure them.
Straight on from 15 feet.
Off one foot or off the glass, he kept hitting net and he kept fading away -- farther and farther -- until Anfernee Hardaway, Shaquille O'Neal and their once-potent basketball team resembled minuscule blips from high atop the ridge.
The Chicago Bulls were much closer to the pinnacle than the Orlando Magic was today because Jordan reached the climax of a yearlong vindication process by backpacking his team to a 106-101 victory in Game 4 and a sweep of the Eastern Conference finals.
"Judging from the look in Michael's eyes, we could have rode him all day today," forward Scottie Pippen said. "I know I rode him. We all did. What's new?"
With a menacing glare attached to nearly every basket he made, Jordan erupted for 45 points, wagged his tongue, kicked up his left foot ever so slightly and walked out of Orlando Arena with a Cuban cigar tucked snugly in his blazer pocket.
He made 16 of 23 shots and 10 of 14 free throws and performed the same riveting theater on the floor that carried Chicago to its last finals, in 1993, the last time the Bulls were this close to a championship.
They overcame a 56-47 halftime deficit in the final seconds of the third quarter and then let Jordan do most of the sweeping up in the final quarter. He had 10 points in the final 12 minutes, including two demoralizing jumpers that effectively ended the Magic's season. The Bulls, who have lost once since the regular season ended, will not play again until at least Friday. "We might not even practice for two straight days," Jordan said, smiling.
O'Neal and Hardaway each finished with 28 points and played spectacularly at times for Orlando, which knocked off Chicago in six games last season in the conference semifinals. But O'Neal had only 2 points in the fourth quarter and Hardaway was corralled every time he dribbled around the perimeter in the final minutes.
The clincher came with 4 minutes 40 seconds left and Orlando trying to keep its season alive by swarming the basketball. Suddenly a cross-court pass from Pippen materialized in Jordan's hands while he was a few steps from the left baseline. He was as wide open as Madison Square Garden in June.
Jordan, who showed no ill effects after rolling his ankle in the final minutes of Game 3 but was queasy enough from an upset stomach this morning that he needed medication, paused to square his feet. He cruelly let Hardaway get within a few feet and then pulled the trigger. As the ball passed through the net, he kicked his right foot up slightly, dangling it there in front of the Magic bench.
The lead returned to 10 points, at 95-85. Jordan added a heartless 14-footer with 1:38 remaining, putting Chicago ahead, 100-91. The Magic became the first team since Detroit, in 1991, to be swept in the conference finals, and the same player who tutored the kiddie corps from Orlando today sent the Bad Boys home five years ago.
"Jordan is Jordan," O'Neal said. "That's why he's the best player in the world."
Magic Coach Brian Hill said, "We just couldn't overcome what he did today, quite honestly."
The damage in this series actually occurred early on, with Chicago's blowout in Game 1 and its comeback from 18 points down in the third quarter in Game 2.
"It's really sickening because we are a better team than what we displayed," Hardaway said.
To fully recover from this demonstrative sweep might take Orlando 12 months, which would only be fair.
Last May, Jordan was relearning the game. He was mortal. And Grant, the former Bull, was pumping his fist as the Magic knocked off Chicago in Game 6 at the United Center. The new kids on the NBA block had suddenly replaced the old guard.
A few days later, Jordan went back to the gym.
"I think it not only says something about Michael as a player, but also as a person," said Steve Kerr, the Bulls' reserve guard. "He started this quest 12 months ago, working out over the summer with this one singular goal in mind: Getting back to the finals and doing what he could to make his team better than the Magic's. Mission accomplished."
The Bulls will rest Tuesday. "Any time you can take a team out and get some days off, it's nice," Pippen said. "I'm sure that motivated Michael, too."
In the post-season, that is called getting time off for good behavior. Jordan was on his best behavior today. He was in such a good mood, he decided to give Shaq and Penny the whole summer off.