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May 7, 1989 | Bulls 101, Cleveland Cavaliers 100

In the third of 15 “Chicago Bulls Classics” on Comcast SportsNet, Michael Jordan scored 44 points and nailed “The Shot” to beat the Cavaliers and defeat Cleveland 3-2 in their first round series
"'The Shot' did not win a championship; it just won a first round playoff series," writes Sam Smith. "But it proved a major turning point, as with the series victory, the Bulls not only avoided a step back—and perhaps a breakup of that team—but it represented the beginning of what would lead to six NBA championships."
(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 | 11.15.2011 | @SamSmithHoops

Comcast SportsNet will show the third 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 a true Bulls franchise classic, perhaps the most replayed moment with Michael Jordan’s game-winner at the buzzer. “The Shot” did not win a championship; it just won a first round playoff series. But it proved a major turning point, as with the series victory, the Bulls not only avoided a step back—and perhaps a breakup of that team—but it represented the beginning of what would lead to six NBA championships. And for Jordan as well, as it left long forgotten the missed last shot in regulation and missed free throws that should have won the series in Game 4 at home. Plus, it was against a Cavs team that had been designated that season by Magic Johnson to be the NBA’s “Team of the ‘90s.” It was another of those subtle shots which Jordan then saw Johnson taking at him. That one shot effectively enabled the Bulls to switch places with the versatile Cavs and plant the seeds for a blooming dynasty that few, if any, at the time predicted for the Bulls.

It was also a heck of a game and fantastic finish with nine lead changes in the last three minutes, clutch shot after clutch shot before Jordan’s finale. It was ever more devastating for the versatile and talented Cavs, who had run a beautiful out of bounds play for a layup with three seconds left in what seemed like the winner at home. Imagine the letdown to lose like that. The Cavs franchise never was the same. The winning play call by Jim Durham and Johnny Kerr is a classic, along with the stunned looks on the faces of the Cavs, especially Craig Ehlo, long effectively taunted by the basketball world for the Cavs’ limitations on that final play after the Cavs seemed to have won the game.

May 7, 1989 | Bulls 101, Cleveland Cavaliers 100

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

The 1988-89 season for the Bulls was perhaps the most dramatic, if not significant, in team history with the late season dramatics after months of simmering internal controversy which eventually led to the dismissal of coach Doug Collins. This was even as the Bulls went to the conference finals for the first time in 14 years.

Remember, this was a Bulls team that was supposed to be the next big thing in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics’ run was coming to an end and while the Pistons were ascendant, they weren’t considered a long term alternative. The Bulls had won 50 games in 1987-88 and defeated the Cavs in the first round before winning a game in Detroit, but losing the series to the Pistons. The Bulls added center Bill Cartwright and could now start the young athletes, Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen.

But it was the Cavs who took off, winning 57 games and finishing 10 games ahead of the Bulls. Worse, the Cavs were 6-0 that season against the Bulls and in the final game of the season in the old Chicago Stadium, the Bulls hosted the Cavs, who played their reserves and beat the Bulls starters. It was hardly looking like a Bulls team ready to make a move, and even some Chicago newspaper columnists were writing that Jordan would never win a championship.

The season for the Bulls was one of dysfunction with bickering between the coaching staff and management and lineup changes. After a loss in Boston in March in which Jordan stayed home with the flu, Jordan asked to move to point guard for Sam Vincent, who started virtually all season but be relegated to a rarely used reserve by the end of the season. Jordan would go on to record seven straight triple-doubles and 10 in 11 games. But the Bulls would falter amidst the internal turmoil, losing eight of their last 10, including that 90-84 last game humiliation when they were booed off the home court as the Bulls were unable to contain reserve Randolph Keys.

Ready for the playoffs?

Jordan was, as he predicted Bulls in four. He certainly was alone with that one.

But the Bulls got the big break that gave them a chance because this was a Cavs team better than the Bulls. On matchups, the only starting position the Bulls were considered to have a better player was Jordan at shooting guard. Mark Price, Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty were All-Stars, and Horace Grant was starting in the playoffs for the first time. Plus, Ron Harper, then before knee surgery, was regarded as Jordan’s athletic equal, and the Cavs would go to him to score the first baskets of the game because Jordan tended to try to play the lanes so much on defense for steals and not guard his man. Most national observers had the Cavs in a sweep.

Just before Game 1, Cavs point guard Mark Price suffered a groin injury and he missed the opener. And Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens may have made a grave miscalculation, though the Cavs did get back to having the clinching game at home. Wilkens went with Harper at point guard to replace Price and the Bulls won Game 1. Perhaps they would have, anyway. But by using Harper at point guard, it seemed to take away his aggressiveness on offense, which kept Jordan occupied on defense. Also, that meant two Cavs players out of position instead of one. Price returned for Game 2, which the Cavs won at home. He’d never be fully right in the series, though he did have 23 points in Game 5.

Michael Jordan "It was also a heck of a game and fantastic finish with nine lead changes in the last three minutes, clutch shot after clutch shot before Jordan’s finale," writes Sam Smith.
(NBAE/Getty Images)

The Cavs also went to a bigger front line for this game, substituting John “Hot Rod” Williams for Mike Sanders after the Cavs had been outrebounded the first four games. So Cleveland was huge across the front line with Williams, Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty. And Pippen had to switch to take All-Star Nance, at least on paper giving the Cavs an offensive edge at every position but Jordan’s. The Bulls now were starting Jordan in the backcourt with Craig Hodges, so Pippen was doing a lot of the ball handling that would lead to his developing point forward role along with Jordan.

After the split in Cleveland, the Bulls returned home to win Game 3, though every game would be decided by fewer than 10 points. It seemed the Bulls would wrap it up in Game 4 at home. But Jordan missed free throws at the end of regulation that could have clinched it, and the Cavs won in overtime when Daugherty made his free throws. Jordan was distraught afterward, and though he didn’t ask for it, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then a prominent presidential candidate, went into the locker room shower to console Jordan and Jordan never left his father’s side right up to Game 5 as the pair discussed the circumstances and the upcoming moment of truth.

I had my own personal Jordan moment from that game. Although it’s difficult to believe now, the Bulls still weren’t a major story in Chicago because few considered them championship contenders. So there was limited media traveling. The only regulars were myself, Lacy Banks from the Sun-Times and Kent McDill from the Daily Herald. We’d all picked against the Bulls before the series, Lacy in three and Kent in four. I thought Jordan could win two games, but not three. So I had Cavs in five. The game was about to start and Jordan was pacing in front of the Bulls bench and scorer’s table, where we were sitting. Jordan’s mood was buoyant, as if he knew. So he stops and first points to Lacy and says, “We took care of you,” meaning Lacy’s prediction. Then he moves over to Kent and points and says, “And we took care of you.” Then he stops in front of me and points and says with a seemingly knowing smile, “And today we take care of you.”

It was a frenzied home atmosphere with the Cavs all season being considered a special team in sporting success starved Cleveland. The home crowd seemed to anticipate something special, and it would be, though not quite what they imagined.

The Cavs looked in control to start with a 28-24 first quarter lead and relatively easy scoring opportunities. The Bulls doubled Daugherty and frequently down low, but the Cavs unselfish ball movement produced easy opportunities. And in starting a full season for the first time, Pippen still was hardly a reliable second scoring option, missing a pair of free throws early as he’d miss five of eight. That he made a huge three down the stretch made the Bulls win even more remarkable, But Pippen’s his team high rebounding for the Bulls was vital against the Cavs’ size.

At times in the second quarter, it appeared the Cavs would break away as they went ahead by eight and had Jordan mostly neutralized. The partisan audience exulted with about four minutes left in the half when Jordan threw a fast break slam dunk attempt off the back rim and still hadn’t reached double figures with less than four minutes left in the half, though Jordan would score 44 and average about 40 for the series. Cartwright, who had a quiet big game with six of seven shooting and tied for the team lead in the game in blocks and steals, scored with a three point play late while the Bulls held the Cavs to a basket in the last five minutes and went into the half trailing just 48-46.

It looked bad again for the Bulls early in the second half with both Grant and Cartwright in foul trouble and replaced by Brad Sellers and Dave Corzine. The Cavs, predictably, tried to go at them. But both held up, and Sellers even made several big plays, an offensive rebound for a Hodges three and a point blank blocked layup attempt against Daugherty, key plays that enabled an aggressive Jordan playing point guard to keep the Bulls within striking distance, down six after three. Jordan would score 13 of the Bulls first 16 third quarter points while Hodges added a pair of threes in the third. But it did seem the Cavs game and the Cavs ready to break away at any moment as their artistic, unselfish play could be breathtaking, like a late layup when the ball touched three Cavs and never the floor on the way to a fast break layup.

But the Bulls with their nascent defensive Dobermans showing began taking the air out of the Cavs in the fourth quarter with an 11-0 run that was keyed with a pair of Horace Grant tip scores. The Bulls got up by five midway through the quarter, stunning the home crowd. Craig Ehlo, the so-called goat in this thing—of course, with the usual simplistic media exaggeration—was having a big game shooting and would finish with a team high 24 points, one of three Cavs with more than 20.

I thought Wilkens erred in going small in that fourth quarter with Ehlo thus on Jordan and Harper on Pippen. Although Ehlo was a committed defender, he wasn’t as quick as Harper. But he also played too close to Jordan, enabling Jordan to blow by him too many times and create opportunities or get to the line. Sure, Ehlo was criticized for not being close enough on that last shot. And he did make Jordan work. But that smaller lineup seemed to play more to the Bulls strengths.

Still, those last three minutes with the score at 90-90 were among the most enjoyable you’ll find watching the NBA. Ehlo hit a pair of threes and scored on that beautiful out of bounds play that seemed to win it for the Cavs with three seconds left. Cartwright has a big tip-in of a Hodges miss and Pippen hits that corner three with extra coverage on Jordan and a second left on the shot clock. And Jordan hits a pull up with six seconds left to give the Bulls the lead before Ehlo’s layup.

Yes, the Cavs were doubling Jordan down the stretch. In that era, Wilkens was often criticized for not doubling Jordan more, though on that last play with Sellers inbounding and on the floor Pippen three of eight on free throws and Hodges four of 12 shooting along with Cartwright, you’d think the Cavs would have overloaded even more to Jordan. Though Collins devised a nice play to find Jordan in open space from where it was difficult to double.

In any case, it’s one of the best three seconds in Bulls franchise history.