Pippen Leads Bull Charge -- Forward Saves Jordan, Sends Knicks Home

CHICAGO - While everyone was waiting to hear from Michael Jordan, they were watching Scottie Pippen lead the Chicago Bulls to a chance at a third straight NBA title.

Pippen, picking up the slack from an exhausted Jordan, hit a three-pointer with 1:01 left last night that clinched the two-time defending champions' 96-88 victory over the New York Knicks and a berth in the NBA Finals.

The Bulls had looked like yet another team to fall short of a threepeat when they lost the first two games of the best-of-7 Eastern Conference finals in New York.

A victory on the road in Game 5 set the stage for the deciding Game 6 as the Bulls became the first team to reach the NBA Finals for three straight years since the 1989 Los Angeles Lakers. Only three teams have won three straight titles, the last the Boston Celtics who won the last of eight straight championships in 1966.

Jordan released a statement through his agent just hours before the game calling claims of golf debts of over $1 million "preposterous."

"I think everyone realized he was under tremendous strain tonight and others stepped up and helped out," Bull Coach Phil Jackson said.

No one stepped up more than Pippen, the Bulls' other star who has often been maligned.

"Pippen had a great series, and justly so, because he had been labeled somewhat of a pussyfooter out there," Jackson said.

Pippen finished with 24 points, 16 in the second half, and the biggest his 3-pointer with 61 seconds left on the game clock and one on the shot clock.

"I happened to look up and see the clock at 4 seconds and I got the shot up and it fell for me. It was a big shot," Pippen said of the shot that gave the Bulls a 90-82 lead.

Jordan, held to four free throws in the final quarter, scored 25 points, 17 in the first half.

Jackson said he wasn't concerned about Jordan looking tired.

"It will pass," he said.

Patrick Ewing led the Knicks with 26 points, while John Starks, Anthony Mason and Charles Smith had 14 each.

The Bulls will face the winner of today's Western Conference finals Game 7 between Seattle and Phoenix for the title. The finals start Wednesday night in Phoenix if the Suns win today and in Chicago if the SuperSonics win.

"We'd like Seattle to win so we can maintain homecourt," Pippen said.

It turned out to be a lost season for the Knicks, who had directed all their efforts to dethroning the Bulls only to lose their homecourt advantage when Chicago won 97-94 in New York in Wednesday night's Game 5.

"I think the rivalry was born last year and sustained this year," Jackson said of the team's second straight intense playoff series. "We'll have to see what level it gets to next year." The Bulls have beaten New York three straight years in the playoffs and four of the last five.

The Bulls became the fifth team to ever come back from an 0-2 deficit in the NBA playoffs.

"The players believed in themselves and were capable of pulling it out," Jackson said. "That game Wednesday night was a terrific battle for us and a great one."

It was the first time in Pat Riley's two seasons as coach that the Knicks lost four straight games.

"They kept scratching and scratching and scratching. I'm glad the Knicks are going home - the whole crew," Bull guard B.J. Armstrong said.

The Knicks' last lead was at 10-7 after two early baskets by John Starks. Chicago went on an 11-0 run after that, with Pippen scoring two baskets.