Scottie Pippen and the 1991-92 Chicago Bulls
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By Adam Fluck | 06.23.2012
When Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the rest of the Bulls reported for training camp in the fall of 1991, they did so as something they had never been before—defending world champions.
And it didn’t take long for them to realize that life at the top would be different. But everyone, starting with head coach Phil Jackson, had the same ultimate goal in mind: Accomplish what they had just three and a half months prior once again.
(Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls)
“Our whole training camp changed,” recalled Pippen in a recent interview. “With Phil’s mentality as a coach, he sort of rewarded us for being champions and it wasn’t as tough. We were coming off a long season, so he backed off of us a little and began to manage us more as players. By then, we had learned a lot about the importance of having a good regular season—playing well and developing some chemistry. But overall, we wanted to be healthy and fresh going into the playoffs.”
In the 1991 postseason, Chicago went on a remarkable 15-2 run, including four straight wins in the NBA Finals following a Game 1 defeat at home to Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers.
With history as hindsight, it was the beginning of one of sport’s great dynasties, but at the time, Pippen and the Bulls didn’t necessarily view it in that fashion.
The 1990-91 Bulls overcame a previously insurmountable hurdle in the form of the Detroit Pistons, who had knocked them out of the postseason the previous three years. Defeating them—the Bulls swept the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals—was very much a crowning achievement in its own right. To win their first NBA title ended up being icing on the cake.
“We realized that we had an opportunity for a great run ahead of us. We were still young as a team,” said Pippen, who was 26 years of age at the time. “Beating the Pistons was truly a confidence boost for us. We felt they were really the biggest obstacle that kept us from being champions. Once we got beyond them, we believed that if we stayed healthy, we were capable of a very good run.”
As the 1991-92 regular season got underway, the Bulls proved to the NBA that their previous run was no fluke, opening with 15 wins in their first 17 games.
One of Jackson’s messages to the team throughout that season was simple: Focus on winning streaks. And when you lose, start another one.
“Phil was great at constantly setting goals for us,” recalled Pippen. “We’d look at the schedule at our next seven to ten games and sort of pick and choose which games we thought we would win. It broke the schedule down for us, and along the way, we won some games we maybe thought we weren’t going to win. But we also lost some games we thought we were going to win. All in all, we just stayed focused on those goals in terms of going on the road especially and having success.”
Leading up to that point, Pippen had steadily risen to widely be considered among the elite players in the league. But it was his fifth season as a pro in which he took a significant step forward and had one of his best seasons statistically.
“I think a lot of it was just familiarity; getting comfortable with the offensive system,” said Pippen, who averaged 21.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game, all career highs at the time. “I had grown and matured as a player. I knew how to find my way around the court with greater ease and getting my teammates involved became simpler. Statistically, the offense became more fruitful for me as a player in terms of generating numbers across the board.”
John Paxson, the starting point guard at the time and currently the Bulls’ EVP of Basketball Operations, once said Pippen had learned to play with an arrogance.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
“It came from winning,” Pippen agreed. “When you put in the work and it pays off, you tend to get a little bit of cockiness about you. It comes from winning, but also being comfortable with yourself.”
Meanwhile, another teammate who also came to the Bulls on the night of the 1987 NBA Draft, Horace Grant, was also having the best year of his career.
Grant was quickly developing the reputation of being a work horse—a player who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and someone who exhibited a selfless mentality. But as Pippen explained of Grant, his closest friend, he also possessed a load of talent.
“Horace was our No. 3 guy,” said Pippen of Grant. “He was great. Horace was a very versatile player, especially early on in his career. He could guard any position from one to five. We were very comfortable with him defending out on the perimeter.”
Bill Cartwright rounded out the starting five, but any discussion about that season’s Bulls wouldn’t be complete without addressing the team’s depth. The team’s bench and role players—including B.J. Armstrong, Stacey King, Cliff Levingston, Will Perdue, Craig Hodges, Bobby Hansen and Scott Williams—provided the club with a tremendous asset.
“They were competitors,” said Pippen, who spent a lot of time playing with the second group in practice so that he was matched up against Jordan.”It was a very confident group of guys and their confidence grew throughout the season. Most of them were on that first championship team and that allowed them to pick up some arrogance of their own. They knew their roles as players coming off of the bench and it created a great mix.
“They didn’t ask for a lot, but whatever was being asked of them, they stepped forward and did it,” added Pippen. “We had a team that knew what it took to win. It’s what made us back-to-back champions. The pieces that we had fit perfectly and everyone did what they had to do in order to be successful.”
With a 67-15 regular season record, the Bulls had accomplished one of their goals—securing home court advantage throughout the postseason.
“That was always our mindset as a team,” said Pippen. “It’s what you play for in the regular season—to have the best record and to be the best team. No matter how good we felt about ourselves, we still knew it was very important to have home court advantage.”
As the playoffs began, the Bulls were confident but realistic about the challenges that lied ahead.
“We were comfortable with where we were at as a team, but we also knew it wouldn’t be easy,” said Pippen. “No one was bowing down or stepping to the side to let us through. Regardless of how successful you are in the regular season, it doesn’t get any easier once the playoffs start. You can’t carry any of those regular season wins into the postseason. So we definitely faced some difficult challenges, but that’s part of becoming a champion.”
While Chicago breezed through its first round series against Miami, sweeping the Heat 3-0, the Bulls were in for a battle in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And having the aforementioned home court advantage would never be more important than in the 1992 postseason.
Facing Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks, the Bulls knew it would be a tough, physical series. Head coach Pat Riley and the Knicks couldn’t outrun Chicago, so they tried to overpower the Bulls. And in Game 1, it worked, as the Knicks stole home court with a 94-89 victory.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
The Knicks found a comfortable style in playing aggressively, one which reminded Pippen of a former, bitter rival.
“Basically, we faced a team trying to be something that they really were not,” Pippen said of the Knicks. “They were trying to be the Pistons. They had taken a page out of Detroit’s book and they played us very physically. It was a little out of character for them, but it worked to some degree and made the series more competitive. Offensively, they didn’t have the firepower the Pistons had, but they played that way on the defensive end to challenge us as a team and try to stop Michael and me from driving to the basket.”
As Pippen mentioned, New York’s strategy was effective and the Knicks forced a deciding Game 7. It would end up being the first of only two Game 7s Chicago would face in the six championship seasons.
And while New York’s Xavier McDaniel and Anthony Mason gave the Bulls their best shot—often literally, not just figuratively—Jordan and Pippen refused to back down. Jordan scored 42 points and Pippen added a triple-double with 17 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists as the Bulls hammered the Knicks 110-81 to advance.
“We had dealt with adversity the previous few years against the Pistons,” said Pippen. “We truly had learned and knew that teams were going to throw a lot at us. We knew we had to be ready; ready to step up and support one another. It was something we talked about as a team in the locker room. Phil wanted guys to step up and support each other. It was a situation where New York was pulling out all they could to beat us with their physical play.”
With the Knicks finally out of the way, Chicago advanced to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1992 Eastern Conference Finals. Brad Daugherty, Mark Price and Larry Nance posed a formidable threat and with the series at 3-2 in the Bulls’ favor, Chicago and Cleveland were tied through three quarters of play in Game 6. Jordan hadn’t shot the ball particularly well to that point, connecting on just five of 20 shots from the field. Another Game 7 seemed possible, but Pippen (29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, four steals and four blocks) and Grant (20 points and nine rebounds) delivered to help Chicago seal a second straight trip to the NBA Finals.
The Portland Trail Blazers were the Bulls’ next and final challenge that season. Widely considered to be the best team in the Western Conference, the Blazers’ were led by Clyde Drexler, who averaged 25.0 points, 6.7 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game in the regular season.
Pippen acknowledged the Bulls had kept an eye on them throughout the year as a potential Finals opponent.
“It was a great Finals with truly the best two teams from that season meeting,” said Pippen. “We did much better in that series than we thought we would. Portland had some great runs with that team for many years. We knew we were going up against a team with a lot of experience, a lot of talent, and a lot of depth. But our matchups worked out well for us.”
The marquee matchup, of course, was Jordan versus Drexler. While Jordan had just collected his third NBA MVP trophy, it was Drexler who was the runner up. There was a historical connection as well, given Portland essentially passed on drafting Jordan in 1984 because they already had Drexler. It wasn’t a slight by any means, but perhaps something to add a little fuel to Jordan’s well documented fire. Regardless, it was Jordan who was out to prove immediately he was the superior player.
In Game 1 at the Chicago Stadium, both teams came out firing and the Bulls owned a 33-30 advantage through a quarter. Jordan, however, was doing something a little out of the ordinary—shooting threes at a high rate. He was also converting at a historical pace.
By halftime, Jordan had connected for six three point attempts, tying a Finals record for most threes made—in a game. He had accrued 35 points by the intermission, breaking Elgin Baylor’s 30-year old mark. It was perhaps one of Jordan’s greatest stretches as a pro, made even more memorable by his famous shrug towards Magic Johnson and the TV announcers as he ran down the court after hitting his last three of the half.
“It was great,” said Pippen of Jordan’s first half performance. “We had seen Michael’s performances over the years, but that day was very special because he was never known as being a great three point shooter, or even a guy who took a lot of threes. But that day, he had it going. The spacing was there and he had a rhythm. It was one of those moments where he took the MVP trophy, then displayed why he was the Most Valuable Player.”
(Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls)
In Game 2, the Bulls held an eight-point lead with roughly four a half minutes to go, but the Blazers fought back and Jordan missed a pull up jumper that would have won the game. In overtime, Portland outscored Chicago 18-7 to even series at 1-1 and claim home court advantage.
The series shifted to Portland, where the Blazers were 8-0 in the playoffs, for Game 3. Chicago built an early lead, and while Portland again chipped away at the deficit late, there was no letdown and Bulls held on for 94-84 win and 2-1 series lead.
The Blazers, however, would even the series at 2-2 after a 27-19 fourth quarter in Game 4. Chicago had struggled to maintain its edge and was unable to put games away like they had hoped.
In the pivotal Game 5, Chicago’s third consecutive game in Portland, the Bulls opened with a huge first quarter and jumped out to a 39-26 lead. Jordan went on to score 46 in the game and Pippen just missed a triple-double with 24 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. The Bulls won 119-106 and went home with a chance to close the series out.
“It was a series where we knew we had to stop their runs,” said Pippen. “Portland was a team known for beating you in transition, a lot like what you see now with the Miami Heat. They liked to get steals, get out on the wings, and attack their opponents. But our matchups with them worked out great and that’s where we felt we won the series.”
The Bulls, however, may not have won the series without a significant effort from their bench. Though the Bulls were back at the Chicago Stadium for Game 6, it was Portland who had claimed a 79-64 lead through three quarters.
Still a young team that was looking to win its second world championship, the Bulls were again facing adversity against an opponent who had proven it could beat them. With Jordan on the bench to start the final frame, the Bulls understood that if they were going to win, they needed each other. And they had better act quickly.
Pippen, along with B.J. Armstrong, Bobby Hansen, Scott Williams and Stacey King, did just that. The five on the floor assembled a furious 14-2 run that brought the Stadium crowd to life, all while Jordan remained on the sideline. Once he returned, he scored 12 of the team’s last 17 points and the Bulls held on for a clinching 97-93 victory.
“I won’t say we had written that game off,” Pippen recalled. “But we came out in the 4th quarter with what was considered to be the second unit. It was the group that I practiced with a lot, and I would stay on the floor when Michael rested. We knew what we had to do and just put it all on the line. That’s what we did, along with playing good, hard defense.
“We got some big breaks, guys made some big shots—Stacey King and Scott Williams inside, Bobby Hansen and B.J. Armstrong outside,” added Pippen. “We made some big plays defensively that changed the momentum. If we hadn’t been at home and had the support of the fans, we probably would not have been able to get back in that game.”
Jordan, who would be named the 1992 NBA Finals MVP, finished with 33 points in the game, while Pippen added 26.
“Game 6 against Portland in the old Stadium was probably one of our greatest playoff games ever,” said Pippen. “You could probably hear the announcers talking about what the Bulls needed to do to win Game 7 because it didn’t look good for us. But we found a way to do it.
(Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls)
“Great team, great history, great players, great coaching,” Pippen continued. “We kept fighting and things worked out for us. We got some breaks here and there and that’s why we were able to put together such a nice, long run throughout the ‘90s. We never gave up.”
A celebration like Chicago had never seen before was on, but unlike the previous season when the Bulls clinched in Los Angeles, they had done it on their own floor.
“We didn’t really know how to celebrate a championship on our home court,” said Pippen. “We didn’t know if we should celebrate it with the fans or amongst ourselves. The first one we won on the road, so it was just us. We all went back into the locker room and then we realized, ‘We’re at home and this is our building.’ So we decided to go back out onto the court and celebrate it with the fans. It was incredible.
“We were all so happy to win the first championship,” added Pippen. “But winning [the second] here in the city made it that much more special because people got to witness it and be a part of it. It was one of those times where it felt like basketball was at its greatest moment for a Bulls player.”
While the team’s players, coaches, staff and fans savored the moment, the Bulls were far from done. And even though a third championship would follow the next season with three more still to come in 1996, 1997 and 1998, there wasn’t much dynasty discussion, at least amongst the players who would turn Chicago’s run into just that.
“We really couldn’t look that far down the road,” said Pippen. “Definitely, after we won two, we started thinking about a three-peat. But we weren’t looking too far down the road.
“The success we had was built around good coaching and great players,” Pippen concluded. “Ultimately, you’ve got to have players who are willing to win and sacrifice. We had a lot of those guys.”