Twenty years later, Pippen recalls first three-peat season
Winning back-to-back championships in 1991 and 1992 established the Chicago Bulls as one of basketball’s elite teams. Capturing a third straight title in 1993 made history, as only two other NBA teams had done it at that point, none since the Boston Celtics in 1966.
But as the 1992-93 season got started, circumstances were hardly ideal for Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls. Jordan and Pippen, in addition to playing over 200 regular season and playoff games during the previous two seasons, didn’t have much of an opportunity to rest as they went straight from the NBA Finals win over the Portland Trail Blazers to join the Dream Team that dominated its competition and captured gold at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Furthermore, starting center Bill Cartwright and John Paxson both underwent offseason knee surgeries.
So as Pippen looked back on that third championship season with the 20th anniversary this week, he credited Bulls coach Phil Jackson for allowing their participation in training camp to be limited as the players – he and Jordan in particular – took care of their bodies with another grueling run ahead.
“Phil was very good as far as monitoring us and watching our minutes,” recalled Pippen. “The Olympics made the ’92 season even longer for MJ and me, so our bodies had been through a lot and we knew it.
“Our focus was to build chemistry throughout the regular season,” added Pippen. “We knew we couldn’t win a championship in those 82 games. We just wanted to keep everyone healthy.”
To some, this different, if not less threatening mentality may have reduced the fear possessed by opponents when they faced Chicago. Through Dec. 19, the Bulls owned a very mortal record of 15-7. It was not exactly a look of invincibility considering Chicago didn’t suffer its seventh defeat until Jan. 30 the previous season, when they dropped to a mark of 37-7. However, the team’s confidence never wavered, resting on its laurels and relying on valuable experience gained over the last two championship seasons.
“We never had any doubts,” said Pippen. “We had done it twice and there was nothing standing in our way. We felt that if our bodies were on the court and healthy, we could dominate. We knew there were teams out there who were going to challenge us. No championship year was ever a given.”
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In most of the Bulls’ championship seasons, however, home court advantage was a given. Not in 1993. Chicago finished the year at 57-25, third best in the NBA and three games behind the New York Knicks, who claimed the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
But Chicago entered the postseason healthy, confident in their play and possessing the necessary energy to win 15 games throughout the course of four series.
The Bulls took care of business quickly in the opening round, sweeping the Atlanta Hawks 3-0 with a 16.3 point average margin of victory.
Cleveland presented a tougher test in the second round, but Chicago built a 3-0 lead heading into Game 4 on the road. The Cavaliers had added Gerald Wilkens that season in an effort to slow Jordan, but MJ was as usual more than up to the challenge. In the closeout game on May 17, the Bulls trailed by a point with 18 seconds to go. As they did in 1989, when Jordan’s The Shot broke the hearts of Cavaliers fans, everyone knew where the ball was going. Yet Jordan came through again, backing in Wilkens and hitting a turnaround jumper as the clock expired to sweep the series and advance.
Chicago’s next opponent was the top-seeded New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals, a series in which the Bulls knew they were in for a mental test in addition to the physical one. Pat Riley’s Knicks had physically punished the Bulls and pushed them to the brink the year before, forcing Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In addition, they held home court advantage.
“Going into the series, we knew we had to get a win at Madison Square Garden and that was a tall order,” said Pippen. “New York was a very good defensive team. They played a very physical brand of basketball and the officials allowed them to play that way. It wasn’t like today’s game; it was much different.”
New York’s style of play paid off early in the series as the Knicks jumped out to two wins. And while the Bulls were concerned, they never doubted themselves.
“We felt we had an edge, even when we were down 2-0,” said Pippen. “Even though they had home court advantage, they still had to beat the champs.”
According to Pippen, the Bulls also had a great deal of confidence when it came to winning away from the Chicago Stadium, explaining players were generally more focused on the road while there was a tendency to relax a bit more at home.
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In addition, history had prepared Chicago for the deficit they faced against New York with respect to the physical nature of basketball imposed by the Knicks. Falling to the Detroit Pistons in three consecutive postseason matchups during the late 80’s provided the experience for Chicago to know how to respond and overcome.
“Throughout my whole career, no team pushed me and pushed us to the limit like the Pistons did,” said Pippen. “Those games seemed like they came every week. Back then, we played them six times a year. But those games were so big and magnified – and so physical – it felt like we were playing the Pistons every week. Facing and ultimately beating them helped us when it came time to face a team like the Knicks.”
Chicago returned home needing to win both games and did just that. Jordan’s 54 points in Game 4 evened the series at 2-2 before heading back to Madison Square Garden for a pivotal meeting.
Game 5 was an intense, back and forth affair in which Jordan, who recorded a triple-double with 29 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds, found B.J. Armstrong for a corner three pointer to put the Bulls up late. New York had a chance to take the lead in the closing seconds when one of the more infamous sequences took place, a moment Knicks fans would likely prefer to forget.
It started when John Starks passed on a contested shot from the outside and gave the ball up to Patrick Ewing, who then got the ball to Charles Smith in the post. Smith attempted four shots from directly under the basket, but none went in… or drew rim. A combination of Grant, Pippen and Jordan suffocated the 6-10 forward, blocking multiple attempts and eventually stripping the ball, which Jordan fed to Armstrong for a breakaway layup that ended the game.
“It was definitely the defining moment in that series,” said Pippen of the 97-94 Game 5 finish, which snapped a streak of 27 straight wins by the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. “It was a huge sequence. I think it really set the Knicks back as a team in a lot of ways. For us, it was just another day. That’s how we played. We were competitors and we challenged shots. We never had any major shot blocker on our team, but we always had great athletes who were competitive and they went for the ball. It was one of those moments where we defended the basket very well. It put the Knicks on their heels and gave us control of the series.”
Sure enough, Chicago took care of business the next time out, winning 96-88 in Game 6 at the Stadium to take the series 4-2.
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It meant that the Bulls had just one remaining obstacle to overcome for a third consecutive championship. And it came in the form of NBA MVP Charles Barkley and the owners of the best record that season, the Phoenix Suns.
Whereas Chicago had faced a physical, grind it out challenge against New York, Phoenix thrived with an up-tempo style of play. Slowing Barkley was obviously a priority, but the Suns had several other capable players in Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle and Richard Dumas. Also, like the Knicks, the Suns held home court advantage.
Unlike the previous series, though, Chicago quickly stole home court advantage, leading by more than 20 in the opener and holding off the Suns for a 100-92 victory. Jordan scored 31, while Pippen added 27 points and nine assists.
Determined not to have a letdown in Game 2, Phoenix came out firing but Jordan led Chicago’s response. The Suns kept within striking distance in the second half but Pippen’s block of Danny Ainge with less than 30 seconds left in the 4th quarter gave the Bulls possession and control of the game. Jordan was spectacular, finishing with 42 points on 18 of 36 shooting to go with 12 rebounds and nine assists, while Pippen recorded a triple-double with 15 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists.
Returning home with a 2-0 lead and three games at the Stadium, Chicago was in control of its destiny with a prime opportunity to win its third straight title in front of its own fans. But the Suns had other things in mind and as a result, Game 3 of the 1993 NBA Finals on June 13 was an epic battle. In the end, it was Phoenix who outlasted Chicago in a 129-121 marathon of a game that went three overtimes.
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With the game tied at 103 late in the 4th quarter, Barkley missed a jumper over Grant. With one second left in regulation, Pippen looked to Grant for a tip in that came up just short. Ainge had a shot to win it at the buzzer in the first overtime, but missed. Pippen then failed to connect on a runner that would have won it at end of the second overtime. In the third overtime, the Bulls finally wore out and Suns ran away with the game.
“They won the race that night,” said Pippen, who battled leg cramps but stayed in the game, gutting out a near triple-double with 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in 56 minutes.
Pippen wasn’t the only one with a monster stat line that night. Jordan connected on 19 of 43 shots en route to 44 points to go with nine rebounds in 57 minutes. Armstrong recorded 21 points in 58 minutes. For the Suns, Johnson tallied 25 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in a whopping 62 minutes. Majerle scored 28, while Barkley tallied 24 and 19 boards.
Phoenix had successfully come into Chicago and won despite losing their first two games at home. With Game 4 looming, the pressure was on the Bulls to respond to a challenge.
“We knew we could play better and we felt like we had thrown Game 3 away,” said Pippen. “We didn’t perform the way we needed to perform and let too many of their guys get going.”
In one of the all-time great finals performances, Jordan scored 55 points as the Bulls won 111-105 and took a 3-1 lead in the series. Chicago had a chance to close out the series at home in Game 5, but the Suns fought back and recorded a 108-98 victory despite 41 points from Jordan.
“They were a desperate team at that point,” said Pippen of the Suns winning Game 5. “I gave them all the credit. And you can’t forget, they were a very good team all throughout the regular season on the road. They were used to winning in hostile environments.”
Jordan’s scoring output was one of historical levels—42 points in Game 2, 44 in Game 3, 55 in Game 4 and 41 in Game 5; a mark of 45.5 points over those four games when he also averaged nine rebounds and six and a half assists over that stretch.
“It was Michael as usual,” said Pippen of Jordan. “He was always an aggressive scorer and never afraid to shoot the ball. He didn’t believe in sharing the basketball in the sense that, if he was open, it was a good shot. But deservingly so, because he was a great scorer and became a great shooter too.
“He had the unique ability to break a team’s back in a span of two minutes during a game,” added Pippen. “He was so aggressive and he got to the line; before you know it, you look up and you’re down 12 because he just scored 12 in a row on you.”
As much of an influence as Jordan had on the court, he made his presence felt off of it as well. Faced with heading back to the Suns’ home court for at least one game and possibly Game 7 if the Bulls weren’t able to close it out in six, Jordan instructed teammates to pack for only one game before boarding their flight for Phoenix.
“It was something we talked about after our practice that day,” recalled Pippen. “We decided then we were only packing one outfit. That was our mentality and Phil had spoken to us about it. We looked back to see what went wrong in the losses and the mistakes we made. We were on our way to Phoenix to do what we had to do—win a game.”
In Game 6 on June 20, 1993, the Bulls got it going from long range to open the game up 37-28 through a quarter of play. But facing the prospect of elimination, the Suns launched another desperate comeback. The Suns eventually took lead late in a slower paced 4th quarter that featured several shot clock violations by Bulls.
Leading 98-94 with the ball, Phoenix thought it had Chicago on the ropes. But a Suns’ missed shot led to Jordan taking the ball the length of the floor for a layup. In the Suns’ next possession, Majerle hoisted an air ball as the shot clock expired and Pippen claimed possession with the Bulls trailing 98-96.
Jordan inbounded the ball to Armstrong, who returned it to Jordan. Jordan dished to Pippen, who then found Grant on the baseline. Grant kicked it to Paxson, who calmly drilled a three pointer to put Chicago up 99-98. On the ensuing play, Grant blocked Johnson’s runner and the three-peat celebration ensued.
“The play worked just like Phil drew it up,” explained Pippen of Paxson’s shot, a product of Jackson’s “blind pig” set. “The open man was going to take the shot and it was just a matter of where the Suns were going to break down. We were looking to score and it was Pax who ultimately hit the three. It was designed for me to go for a layup if it was there, but Horace’s guy stepped up on me. So I hit Horace, who was very good at the baseline shot. He found Pax and he put us up. We had confidence in whoever was on the floor.”
For a team that had seen Jordan hit countless game-winning shots over the years, it was symbolic of not only Jordan, but the team as a whole, trusting each other. It also provided Paxson, who that season was a reserve after starting in Chicago’s first two championships, with the moment of a lifetime.
“It lifted a lot of weight off our backs,” said Pippen. “For John, it was truly a highlight of his career. He had made a name for himself in the game by then, but he really made his mark with that shot. Looking back at that play, we carved them up. Every player touched the ball and the best shooter got it at the end. He wasn’t the best scorer, but he was the best shooter. He made the shot we needed him to make. We didn’t need a two, we needed a three.”
Paxson’s ability to deliver lifted the Bulls into historic company. Prior to 1993, only the Minneapolis Lakers (1952-54) and Boston Celtics (1959-66) had been able to three-peat. And the historical significance was not lost on Pippen.
“It was great,” said Pippen. “For us, it was making our own mark and trying to do something that hadn’t been done in a long time. It was hard to put it into perspective at the time because we didn’t really dwell on it. But now that we can look back, you see how tough it was to do. It takes staying healthy and keeping a team together. There are a lot of things that can fall apart and it’s not as often teams stick together like that for three seasons in a row.”
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