THE CHICAGO Bulls are two games down. They are reeling, and should be thankful that the NBA's slavish relationship with national television has provided them three days off between games.
Because the Bulls sure could use the time to regroup right now.
For one thing, it gives them some time to get Horace Grant healthy. The media hasn't made much of an issue about it -- perhaps not caring to make excuses for the defending champs -- but Grant's sprained ankle obviously hampered his effectiveness in the first two games.
Grant isn't one to complain, but all you had to do was look at the Bulls' feeble rebounding statistics to know that their fine, 6-foot-10 power forward was a shadow of his usual self during the two losses in New York.
Chicago is getting killed on the boards, and Grant's immobility is a big reason. One of the game's top offensive rebounders, he has just three offensive boards in the series. He is averaging 6.5 points, he hasn't blocked a shot and he's not getting to the defensive spots quickly enough to seal Chicago's double-teams.
If Grant isn't whining, though, the rest of the Bulls are compensating for him. The surprise isn't that they lost two games -- the Knicks are a much worthier foe than I'd realized -- but that they utterly lost their poise in doing so.
You'd think a two-time champ would carry itself with dignity. You wouldn't expect it to stoop to gamesmanship, petty jealousy and griping about the officials. But the Bulls have been guilty on all counts.
Scottie Pippen should spend less time reminding everyone he's an all-star and more time playing like one. He couldn't prove much down the stretch Tuesday night, seeing how he'd been ejected for chucking the ball at referee Bill Oakes.
Michael Jordan only lowers himself to Greg Anthony's level by challenging him to fight in the parking lot. And Will Perdue and Scott Williams should stop complaining about the officials and try stopping the Knicks' big men.
The worst offender of all, though, has been Chicago head coach Phil Jackson, who has gone to great lengths to justify his image as a "Deadhead."
Jackson has been on a crusade from the moment the conference final was set. Stung when he didn't get a single vote for NBA coach of the year, he's allowed his jealousy for Pat Riley (who won it) to infiltrate his thinking.
Before the series, Jackson dismissed the Knicks as dirty. He offered a bizarre indictment, accusing Riley of failing to uphold the honor of former players by allowing his team to endanger the welfare of the opposition.
"Basketball is not a wrestling match," Jackson said after Game Two. "It is a game of movement and beauty."
Of course, "movement" and "beauty" aren't the two images that spring to mind when you reflect on Jackson's own NBA career. "Lumbering" and "hack" are more like it.
Jackson's behavior has apparently infected his team. He is the Bulls' leader and intellectual center. If he has become obsessed by the Knicks, it figures his players would follow.
It's understandable that Jackson wanted to send a message to the referees before the series. The Bulls rely on quickness and guile, so he wanted the refs to keep the physical contact to a minimum. But it's gone beyond that now. Jackson's posturing has entered the realm of desperation.
That's why the Bulls need the extra rest to get their heads together.
There's a sense of panic about the Bulls. A champion is supposed to have grace and mental strength under pressure, but Chicago hasn't demonstrated those qualities.
When a team stops acting like a champion, you wonder if it's destined to remain one much longer.