The Chicago Bulls are looking old at times. Vulnerable, too, especially in the fourth quarter.
Nevertheless, they are one win away from sweeping their opening-round series from the New Jersey Nets.
"We felt comfortable until we got a big lead and then things started to slip away a little. We had to clamp down. I don't think we lost control of the game," Michael Jordan said Sunday after the Bulls staggered to finish off the Nets 96-91.
The Bulls struggled to a three-point overtime victory in the series opener, blowing a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead. On Sunday, they had a 21-point lead in the second half and it nearly slipped away against an athletic team still fighting illness and injury.
"New Jersey is a young team and they throw a lot of bodies and energy on the court," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said.
"Their frenetic energy changes the tempo of the game. There are periods of time in the game where they can have four or five minutes and their energy overwhelms a team."
Sherman Douglas hit a 3-pointer to make it 94-91 late in the fourth, but Scottie Pippen then made two free throws with 14 seconds left as the Bulls, despite 7-of-13 free-throw shooting in the fourth, hung on.
"We know we can play with these guys," New Jersey's Jayson Williams said, going again with a broken thumb and grabbing 11 rebounds. "We feel good about our chances at home. We don't feel good about losing."
The Bulls, who can complete the series sweep Wednesday, got 32 points from Jordan, 19 from Toni Kukoc and 16 rebounds from Dennis Rodman.
New Jersey's top scorers Keith Van Horn and Sam Cassell, who played sparingly in the opener because of illness and injury, were not factors again. Douglas, Kerry Kittles and Williams nonetheless attacked the two-time defending champions with a fervor.
"For what God has given Sherman, he's probably the best player in the game," Chicago's Steve Kerr said. "He can't shoot, he is not very quick but he still gets 20 points. I think tey play better with him in the lineup."
Kittles scored 23, Douglas had 20 with 12 assists and Williams also had 10 points.
Kittles, who shot 3-for-17 in the opener, had nine points in an 11-2 burst including one basket on a backward alley-oop lob from Douglas and New Jersey trailed by 11 after three quarters.
The Nets cut the lead to seven early in the fourth before Kerr hit a 3-pointer, made a steal and Kukoc hit a pair of baskets to run the lead back to 14.
But the Bulls could not put the Nets away.
Van Horn, recovering from the flu and slowed by foul problems, made a basket with 22 seconds left to pull New Jersey within five. After Jordan missed one of two free throws for the second time in the final half-minute, Douglas hit his 3-pointer.
Cassell, bothered by a groin injury, didn't start, played only six minutes and was scoreless. Van Horn finished with 10 points in 29 minutes.
After being beaten on the boards 53-39 in the opener when Rodman managed only eight rebounds, the Bulls had a 45-44 edge Sunday in a physical, often sloppy game.
Rodman and Williams, the NBA's top two rebounders, banged each other ferociously under the basket. And when Williams scored on a late dunk, he gave Rodman a shove after the ball went through the basket and was hit with a technical foul.
Kukoc took a beating in a rugged two-minute stretch of the second quarter, getting knocked to the floor by Chris Gatling, driven down on a flagrant foul by Kittles and then running into a courtside camera after he lost the ball.
Chicago led by nine when Van Horn, who did not play the second half of Game 1 because of a stomach virus, picked up his third foul with just under six minutes left in the first half.
New Jersey sliced the lead to seven but the Bulls finished the half with a 15-6 run, leading 52-36 on Jordan's fallaway jumper in the closing seconds.
Jordan was 9-of-19 from the field and 14-of-17 from the line.
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