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June 12, 1991 | Bulls 108, Los Angeles Lakers 101

The fourth of 15 “Chicago Bulls Classics” on Comcast SportsNet features that long dreamed about moment that, at times, seemed never would come--the first NBA championship for Michael Jordan and the Bulls franchise.
There was relief and celebration, as well as great locker room scenes of Michael Jordan with his father and wife clutching the championship trophy, crying and the Bulls players and family celebrating what would be the start of something very big.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

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.

Sam Smith Mailbag

By Sam Smith | 11.22.2011 | @SamSmithHoops

Comcast SportsNet will show the fourth of 15 Chicago Bulls classic games on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Bulls broadcasters Neil Funk and Stacey King, along with Bulls.com writer Sam Smith, will provide pregame, postgame and between quarters commentary on each of the games, much of which is almost as entertaining as the games.

Sam Smith will also provide commentary here on Bulls.com about each of the games. Tuesday's game is that long dreamed about moment that, at times, seemed never would come--the first NBA championship for Michael Jordan and the Bulls franchise. After losing in the playoffs three consecutive seasons to the Detroit Pistons, the 1990-91 season was all about beating the Pistons. And then, inconceivably quickly, that series was over and here were the Bulls in the NBA Finals against Magic Johnson and the historic Los Angeles Lakers. And then the Finals was almost over, two Lakers starters were out for the eventual clinching Game 5, and the Bulls were on the brink of that championship. So long in the making, it seemed to be happening with breathtaking speed. Perhaps because of the obstacles ahead and the magnitude of the competition, it never occurred to the Bulls how historic their run was. But, in the end, they would finish the playoffs 15-2, effectively beaten by one shot in each of the two losses by a combined four points from an undefeated playoff run.

Yet, there still was a game to be played to be champions, and despite the Lakers having to use irregulars like Terry Teague to start and Tony Smith for 30 minutes, the Lakers were about to take the game until a classic Phil Jackson/Michael Jordan moment that led to the first of what would be several John Paxson fabulous Finals moments. And then it was relief and celebration, and there are great locker room scenes of Michael Jordan with his father and wife clutching the championship trophy and crying and the Bulls players and family in the locker room celebrating what would be the start of something very big.

June 12, 1991 | NBA Finals, Game 5 | Bulls 108, Los Angeles Lakers 101

>> Box score | Comcast SportsNet airing "Chicago Bulls Classics"
>> Also: Jordan hits "The Shot" to close out the Cavs
>> MJ scores 27 in 4th, hits game-winner vs. Bucks
>> Jordan sets old scoring mark with 58 to beat New Jersey

While the end of the 1990-91 season was one of celebration, the beginning was one of uncertainty. The Bulls had to win this time. They'd made it to the seventh game of the conference finals against the Pistons the spring before. And then failed again. They had to win this time. There was a big "or else" attached. Left relatively unspoken but much known by the players was that the team likely would not survive in tact if it could not get by Detroit this season.

Jordan was growing more frustrated seven years into his career, and if the Bulls did not succeed in 1990-91, there was going to be a push for major personnel changes. Not that the thinking was really about winning a championship. It was Detroit. Back then in the NBA, the view was you had to have a trial by fire, i.e., lose in the Finals and then come back mature and win. And so it was generally regarded to be the Trail Blazers' time. And when Portland began the 1990-91 season dominating everyone with a 19-1 record, they virtually were conceded the title. For the Bulls, it was only about the East.

And it didn't begin well. The Bulls lost their first three games, two at home, and were dragging along at 7-6 when they returned from the November Western Conference "circus" trip. They would run off a little streak after that with seven wins, but then be beaten by Portland at home. And then the Bulls went into Detroit just before Christmas and were blown out by the Pistons, losing by 21 in another of those classic losses to Detroit in which no Pistons player scored 20 points and the Bulls, averaging 110 per game that season, unable to get to 85 points.

Coach Phil Jackson talked openly of the team maybe being broken up, that perhaps it was not up to beating Detroit. A few days later, on Christmas Day in the Stadium, the Bulls squeezed past Detroit by a basket. But the game was dismissed some as the Pistons players, not exactly ever a classy bunch, had openly complained about having to play on the road Christmas Day despite being champions. Playing on the road required traveling the day before, Christmas eve, and several Pistons players balked and showed up on their own just before the game.

So it wasn’t exactly a great, slay-the-dragons triumph for the Bulls. It wouldn't be until just before All-Star break in February the Bulls would feel a breakthrough as they finally won in Detroit. The Pistons would dismiss it as Isiah Thomas was out with a wrist injury. But that win seemed to embolden the Bulls as they came out of the All-Star break and raced to the finish of the regular season as the best team in the league, going 29-7.

The Bulls then blew through the playoffs, sweeping the Knicks by an average of 20 per game, which brought about the hiring of Pat Riley, losing a two-point squeaker in a 4-1 win over the 76ers and then sweeping the reviled Pistons and frustrating them into leaving the floor before the game ended.

Michael Jordan defends Magic Johnson
After losing in the playoffs three consecutive seasons to Detroit , the 1990-91 season was all about beating the Pistons. And then, inconceivably quickly, that series was over and here were the Bulls in the NBA Finals against Magic Johnson and the historic Los Angeles Lakers.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

And then suddenly, there was Magic in the Air with the little-thought-about but much anticipated Magic Johnson-Michael Jordan matchup. The Lakers had shocked the Trail Blazers, and suddenly it was a dream Finals, though we all would wonder later about what was going on as Johnson announced a few months later he had the HIV virus and was retiring from basketball. Johnson would eventually return to play and coach, though later there was always some thought about how strong he was for that Finals. Still, it was no surprise the way Johnson was being worn down with Scottie Pippen and Jordan taking turns harassing Johnson on defense. The Bulls were a far better team, though known then by only a few of us.

I'm proudest of my pick of Bulls in five for that Finals. Not only because it was right. That's just luck. Mostly, I get them wrong. But it because I knew the Bulls were far more talented and the rest of the country didn't. In fact, there was a sports newspaper then known as The National, which published an editorial saying I should be fired because anyone who thought the Bulls could beat the Lakers in five games certainly did not know the sport. Not necessarily because of that editorial, but the newspaper went out of business the day of Game 5. Even the Los Angeles Times, known for its smug coverage and later to become a satellite of the Tribune, scoffed at what they termed the hicks from Mayberry (Chicago) who would pick the Bulls to defeat the mighty Lakers.

Though I wasn't looking so good after Sam Perkins in Game 1 in really trying to tie the score made a three to win it. Now all the Bulls needed to do was win four straight to ratify my prediction. The Bulls dominated the Lakers in Game 2 with Jordan's famous switch hands layup late in the game and then went to Los Angeles and won the pivotal Game 3 in overtime after Jordan made a full court dash with seconds left and pulled up for a jumper to tie the game. The Bulls then wiped out the Lakers in Game 4 and suddenly it was 3-1, Lakers starters James Worthy and Byron Scott were out injured and the Bulls could feel the celebration.

But there still was a game to be played, and it was an overanxious Jordan so close but yet to far from that long delayed prize. The title would finally elevate Jordan to the levels of greatness he'd eventually be accorded. Because still he was regarded by some around the NBA as everything but a winner. The championship was the final piece.

The Bulls took a 27-25 lead after the first quarter, but despite the Lakers player shortage this was not going to be as easy as it seemed. And once you recapture momentum in a series, things can change.

I just add as an aside I loved when NBC carried the games and do miss their theme music the most. It is nice to hear it again in the Comcast replay.

The story of the day going into Game 5 was not only the Lakers' injuries but talk at Lakers practice that Magic might retire after the season. No, he didn't know about the HIV. It was just one of those off day talk things in practice and Johnson would declare he'd be back. It was eerie to think about that and what would happen.

Paxson came out scoring again as he'd have the series of his life shooting 65 percent and another nine of 12 in Game 5. He'd even get to the basket past Johnson for an early layup. Who needs Jordan? Paxson would later.

Jordan and Pippen would both go on to play 48 minutes in the game, as would a weary, but proudly productive Johnson. The Lakers were big inside with Sam Perkins, A.C. Green and Vlade Divac and they brought in Elden Campbell, the often indifferent big man who was having his way and would finish with 21 points. You could see the Bulls' Doberman defense doubling inside to the big men and recovering quickly. But the Lakers were being patient and getting some surprising shooting from Smith off the bench. At halftime, the Lakers led 49-48 even with Johnson having scored just six points. But Johnson would be extraordinary in trying to save the Lakers, finishing with a triple double with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 20 assists.

Bill Cartwright answered back against the Lakers big men with four straight baskets after halftime while Pippen was all over the floor in the third in one of his best ever playoff games with a team high 32 points (Jordan had 30 and 10 assists), 13 rebounds, seven assists and five steals in addition to running the Bulls offense at point when Jordan wasn't. Pippen would hit a big three after the Lakers went up three with about six minutes remaining. Once a shooting liability, Pippen showed how hard he worked on his shooting as he'd now make 11 of 12 free throws in the game and carry the Bulls through a dry stretch in the third quarter. It was Pippen's coming out party as well and as the clock wound down announcer Marv Albert would say how Pippen would erase the stigma of his famous migraine headache in Game 7 of the 1990 conference finals.

The Lakers began applying more defensive pressure against Jordan in that third quarter and Jordan was trying to force things some as close as the Bulls seemed. It was 80-80 going into the fourth quarter, winnin' time as Johnson liked to say.

And it looked like Johnson might be right as the Lakers would go on to take a 93-90 lead about midway through the fourth quarter. That would be just before the crucial timeout of the series, if not Jordan's career.

The Forum was frenzied as the fans had taken to the notion of being an underdog and seeing the undermanned victory that would be another part of Lakers' lore. Jackson was shouting to Jordan over the din. Jordan couldn't hear. Jackson shouted to Jordan again, "Who's open." Finally, Jordan looked at Jackson and answered: "Paxson." Well, then, throw him the ball, Jackson said, in effect.

Johnson was defending Paxson, but Johnson often was cheating off Paxson to try for steals to ignite the fast break. Jackson saw that and knew the Lakers needed to pay. Paxson cashed the check. Paxson would break a 93-93 tie after the Bulls retrieved the ball when a Cartwright shot was blocked. But you’d see after that Jordan dribble downcourt and then look right to Paxson, who would score 10 of the Bulls next 12 points amidst Marv Albert exclamations, "Paxson again!" The Bulls would inexorably pull away with a Paxson jumper at 105-101 taking the air out of the Forum and the Bulls seconds from beginning that wonderful, relief filled celebration.