Greatest Moments in Bulls vs. Cavaliers History

Sam Smith recalls some of the greatest moments between the Bulls and Cavs

LeBron is coming; LeBron is coming.

And as king of the NBA world for the first time as a Cleveland Cavalier.

Friday 7 p.m. in the United Center the Bulls will host the defending champion Cavaliers and James for the first time this season, and for the first time as defending Cavaliers champions. It means as much in Cleveland as the Chicago Cubs winning meant in Chicago. As a sidelight, James is supposed to wear Cubs gear to the game as payment with his bet with Dwyane Wade about the winner of the World Series.

So there will be some fun for fans, and some expectation and anticipation for the Bulls as a big early season test against the Cavaliers, who already are spacing themselves out from the rest of the Eastern Conference as the favorites to return to the NBA Finals.

It wasn’t that long ago, at least so it seemed, that the roles were reversed and the Cavaliers each season were testing and measuring themselves against the championship Bulls. That was at least in the early 1990s when the Bulls broke the Cavs’ playoff hearts and championship dreams year after year, defeating Cleveland in the playoffs five times between 1988 and 1993.

Those were some of the most memorable playoff series in the history of both teams, including 1992 when the Bulls defeated the Cavaliers in six games to go to the NBA Finals. That was a near last gasp for the Cleveland franchise. The Bulls swept them in the conference semifinals in 1993, and the Cavs didn’t win a playoff series again until three years after James’ arrival in 2006. The Cavs went to the Finals in 2007, were swept and then James famously went to Miami in the summer of 2010, winning two championships and going to four Finals with Wade.

Now, like Michael Jordan dramatically returning to save the Bulls in 1995, James is back in Cleveland and they are again at least co-favorites to win the NBA title.

Which in many ways makes the Bulls rivalry with the Cavaliers the most significant in the franchise history of both teams. The Bulls playoff series with the Detroit Pistons in the late 1980s leading to the Bulls first championship season in 1991 often are described as the franchise’s premier rivalry. But these two Bulls sustained periods of competition with the Cavaliers, including now with James openly chasing the legacy of Jordan, suggests it’s probably Cleveland that is the Bulls longest, most serious rival.

The teams battled during that same period the Bulls fought the Pistons, and then beyond into the mid-1990s. And then again with James’s arrival as he held off the developing Bulls of the same era in Cleveland—then in Miami—and now again with what seems like his greatest team in Cleveland.

Bulls/Cavs remains one of the great NBA rivalries.

It continues Friday, and here are some of the greatest moments in that history.


1. The Shot, May 7, 1989.

It’s one of the iconic moments in Bulls franchise history, the one play generally considered the principal thrust for the Bulls championship run. It was not just the winner that avoided a first round ouster as the Bulls went to the conference finals for the first time in 14 years, but it was against the team most around the NBA projected to be the next dynasty. Those late 80s Cavs battled the Bulls for the label of next great young team with most favoring the Cavs even with Michael Jordan playing for the Bulls. Magic Johnson that season called the Cavs the team of the 90s as the Cavs were 6-0 that season over the Bulls. Then came Jordan’s buzzer beating winner in Cleveland that changed the direction forever of both franchises.

2. The Shot II. May 17, 1993.

The Bulls now were on the way to a third NBA championship, ones a denied Cavs team believed could have or should have been theirs. They’d changed by now with the trade of Ron Harper, and this was a last gasp. They’d won 54 games, second to the Bulls in the Central Division behind the conference leading Knicks of that season. This wasn’t as dramatic for Jordan with the Bulls ahead 3-0 in the conference semifinal and the game tied at 101. Jordan dribbled for a last shot, had it knocked away with about four seconds left and recovered to make an 18 footer as the clock went off to signal the end and a Bulls sweep. The following season the Bulls would sweep the Cavs in the first round for the fifth playoff series win in seven seasons as the Cavs began their fall to the bottom of the East.

3. The Start. May 8, 1988.

Although Jordan’s shot in the 1989 playoffs was the Bulls championship kick start, it was this 1988 opening round fifth game against Cleveland when the Bulls won a playoff series for the first time since 1981 and Jordan’s first series win after a 1-9 record in his first 10 playoff games. After winning the first two games in Chicago with Jordan scoring at least 50 in both games, the Cavs won the next two in Cleveland. It came down again to a deciding fifth game, this time in Chicago. Coach Doug Collins after all season bringing rookie Scottie Pippen off the bench behind Brad Sellers started Pippen. The Bulls rallied down the stretch as Pippen had 24 points, six rebounds and five assists. Jordan had 39 points and Charles Oakley had eight points and 20 rebounds. The young, well rounded Cavs led by Mark Price, Brad Daugherty and Harper believed this was just a temporary road block toward their greatness.

4. The last Hurrah. May 9, 2015.

Derrick Rose made a three pointer at the buzzer to give the Bulls a 99-96 win in Game 3 of the conference semifinals. It came seconds after a tying J.R. Smith three and it looked like the Bulls were finally going to beat James and get back to the NBA Finals with Kevin Love out injured. The ball banked in and the United Center crowd exploded in joy. Jimmy Butler’s defense held James to eight of 27 shooting. Typically, there was anger as James and Joakim Noah went at one another. But Pau Gasol was hurt in the game and couldn’t recover. The Bulls went on to lose the next three games in what would be their final playoff appearance with that group. They missed the playoffs the next season and then Rose, Noah and Gasol all were gone after last season.

5. The Press Conference. April 19, 2010.

It was after the Bulls fell behind 2-0 to the Cavs with James and then Shaquille O’Neal in the first round playoff series. It was the baby Bulls just coming on like the Cavs were in the late 1980s with high draft picks Rose, Noah and Luol Deng. Noah, who went on to have a vociferous history with James, had mentioned off handedly before the series that Cleveland “sucks.” So after the Game 2 loss, Noah was asked to expound and explain. “You like it?” Noah asked a reporter. “You think Cleveland’s cool? I never heard anybody say I’m going to Cleveland on vacation.” It became one of the alltime press conference moments along with Allen Iverson’s “practice” rant. It only further cemented the hard edged rivalry between the Bulls and Cleveland.

6. The Game. March 28, 1990.

It was the biggest scoring game of Michael Jordan’s career, and, of course, it was against Cleveland. Jordan scored 69 points along with 18 rebounds—a Jordan offensive rebound and two free throws in overtime clinched the win—six assists, four steals and he was 21 of 23 on free throws. He did make two three pointers. This was the season immediately after “the Shot” in the 1989 playoffs, and Jordan wasn’t letting the Cavs up as he averaged 50.5 points against them that season. Jordan literally ripped through the new pair of sneakers during the game in shooting 23 of 37.

7. The Closer. May 29, 1992.

The Bulls were looking at a seventh game in the conference finals for a trip back to the Finals. And home was no guarantee as the Cavs had beaten the Bulls 107-81 in Chicago earlier in the series. The Bulls trailed much of Game 6 with Jordan struggling and then a Mark Price three tied the game with 47 seconds left. Jordan with 16 points in the fourth quarter drove and was fouled to provide the winning points as the Bulls went on to the Finals to play Portland and Jordan’s famous shrug in Game 1 after six three pointers. Part of that was relief from escaping the Cavs in the conference finals.

8. The Trade. Nov. 27, 1975.

The Bulls had acquired star center Nate Thurmond the previous season from Golden State in what was to be the final piece of their presumed championship group from the early 1970s. They traded Clifford Ray, who went on to help the Warriors defeat the Bulls in the 1975 Western Conference finals. Thurmond recorded the NBA’s first ever quadruple double with the Bulls, but then couldn’t prosper in Chicago’s forward oriented game. He was traded to Cleveland the following season and despite being 35 years old, he replaced the injured Jim Chones and helped the Cavs to their so called “Miracle of Richfield” conference finals run in 1976. Despite playing fewer than two seasons with Cleveland he had his jersey number retired by the Cavs.

9. The Call Out. Dec. 4, 2009.

The Bulls were off to a shaky 7-9 start against the streaking Cavs, who were blowing out the Bulls late in the game when LeBron James was fouled and went to the free throw line dancing and showing up the opposition, as he often did in his earlier NBA days. Noah, of course, challenged James, calling from the bench that James’ act was getting old and he wasn’t, let’s say, a professional. James walked to the Bulls bench as if to start something, and there was a lot of milling around and words exchanged which further set the stage for this wonderful rivalry that has been off and on for much of the last decade between Chicago and Cleveland. Later that season in the playoff series, Noah would do all he could with 21 points and 20 rebounds in the Game 4 loss in Chicago. The Cavs ended the series in five games.

10. The First Double Nickel. May 1, 1988.

It was that first breakthrough playoff series against the Cavs. In Game 1 with Ron Harper out with an ankle sprain, Jordan torched later victim Craig Ehlo for 50 points as the Bulls won 104-93. Harper then was an athlete to rival Jordan, though Jordan said Ehlo was a better defender. When Harper returned for Game 2 to defend Jordan, he said Jordan never scored 50 against him. Jordan would go on to score 55 points, everything needed as the Cavs led with about a minute left. Jordan closed it with free throws as he shot 24 for 45 with six rebounds and four steals.


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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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