June 3, 1992 | Bulls 122, Portland Trail Blazers 89
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By Sam Smith | 11.30.2011 | @SamSmithHoops
The fifth of 15 Chicago Bulls classic games will air Wednesday, Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet. 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. Wednesday’s game is one of the famous Jordan moments when he delivered his theatrical “shrug” after a sixth first half three point shot in what degenerated into a blowout victory in the first game of the 1992 NBA Finals. It was a classic, “Hey, don’t ask me,” snapshot from the guy who seemed to make all things possible for the Bulls in what would be their second of six NBA championships.
But there was so much more behind the gesture and the sweet success for Jordan, who had in his own unique way been waiting for the Trail Blazers. Not that his career went badly, as understatements go. But this was the team that had passed on Jordan in the 1984 draft because they already had Clyde Drexler, who would be defending Jordan, or, at least, on the defensive, as it turned out. It was another of those Jordan internal personal slights that only Jordan saw. After all, hadn’t Portland suffered enough with that selection of Sam Bowie? Hadn’t they had enough public ridicule? But Michael always had to have his say.
And it wasn’t like Jordan would have suffered in Portland. It seems to us for the NBA Jordan had to be in Chicago. For the Bulls, for sure. But Portland had a more successful pro basketball history with the 1977 champion Trail Blazers, and Michael’s great business partner, Nike, had its home in Portland. That team was good enough to make two Finals without Jordan. So how many titles could they have won with him? Like with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Jordan and the Bulls also would steal their hearts. The Trail Blazers would win at least 50 games just once more in the next seven years after losing in the 1992 Finals.
June 3, 1992 | 1992 NBA Finals | Game 1
Bulls 122, Portland Trail Blazers 89
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Many when they look back on the Bulls dynasty say the 1991-92 team was the best. I prefer the first champions from 1990-91, and although the 1995-96 team was the most dominant with the record breaking 72-10 season, Jordan was nowhere near his athletic best after his hiatus in baseball and the competition, especially in the East, was relatively weak with Orlando beginning what would be their eventual breakup.
Coming in as defending champions in 1991-92 and then with the respect of the basketball world and the Celtics and Pistons in decline, the Bulls won 67 games, which was 10 more than the next best team, Portland with 57. That margin of 10 wins was the most the Bulls had over the team with the second best record in any of their six championship seasons.
Jordan and Scottie Pippen were at their athletic peaks, with Pippen going to the Dream Team Olympics that summer and being the breakout player. The Bulls also had the athletic Horace Grant playing at a high level and B.J. Armstrong, soon to be an All-Star, developing into a double digit scorer. After a 1-2 start, they won 14 in a row, including sweeping the November road trip, and had another win streak of 13 before the All-Star break, after which they were 37-5 and the regular season all but clinched. They led the league in shooting at 50.8 percent and had a margin of victory of more than 10 per game, more than three per game better than second best Portland.
But the playoffs were much more difficult after a controversy filled season which wore on Jordan. First, there was Jordan skipping the team trip to the White House because he said he had promised his family a vacation before the start of the season. Because Jordan wasn’t going and the players weren’t officially required to be with the team for the start of camp yet, Grant and Pippen said they wouldn’t go, either. They did.
Then there was my book, The Jordan Rules, which was a diary of the 1990-91 season and a bit too realistic for the general hero worship of title teams. I initially was under quite a siege and I remember my colleagues, if hardly supporters, at the Sun-Times declaring the Bulls could never win a title again because of the book. It did wonders for sales, if not my personal popularity at the time. But it was mere lint on your collar before too long as it turned out on that White House day Jordan had been in an illegal gambling orgy according to local ordinances with, among others, a convicted drug dealer and a shady bail bondsmen who would soon be found murdered. And, no, the NBA did not force Jordan to leave in 1993 because of any of that.
The gambling stuff, however, would linger, if hardly tarnish Jordan. During the playoffs, Jordan would take a fairly innocent trip to Atlantic City between games. The ersatz sophisticated New York media would be horrified by this with endless stories of Jordan’s alleged abandoning of his team. Then a professional golf hustler named Richard Esquinas released a book in which he claimed he’d won more than $1 million from Jordan in golf betting games but Jordan had refused to pay.
Maybe they’d have won 82 games without the so-called distractions, eh?
Anyway, the Bulls were pushed into a seventh game in the conference semifinals against the newly formed Knicks under Pat Riley who’d seemed to have done their recruiting in the penitentiary. Jordan saved the Bulls with a huge Game 7. Then the Bulls went six against a pretty good Cavs team that was no longer great after the trading of Ron Harper. Steve Kerr played for those Cavs, though we still refrain from calling them Kerr’s Cavs.
Heck, the Bulls lost more games in the conference semifinals than they had in the 1991 playoffs. And then came the Trail Blazers, denied the season before by the Lakers’ conference finals upset and feeling this had to be their time.
There was Jordan’s latest manufactured slight over the 1984 draft. But there also was the continued media pricking and prodding. Again, I had some role in this. I’d quoted Phil Jackson saying Drexler had an MVP season. Jordan had won the MVP, but Jackson’s comments were eagerly construed by my old buddy, Jay Marriotti at the Sun-Times, to say his own coach didn’t think he deserved to be MVP. Ridiculous, of course, not unlike in the recent presidential mess when Romney’s campaign took a clip of Barack Obama quoting John McCain and attributing the quote to Obama. That media! Could Sarah Palin have been right? Anyway, it began to get picked up by some of the relatively lazy elements of the media and now Jordan was being asked why his coach thought Drexler should be MVP. Phil denied it, but as those of us who worked on newspapers know, “95 percent of what you read is true except the five percent you have personal knowledge of.” And then end sentences with prepositions, also. Still, I have to admit Jay was good at that kind of stuff. Made you look!
So now it’s Game 1 and it’s the Trail Blazers who decided Drexler was better and Jordan was being defended by that guy who supposedly was an MVP.
Actually, Jordan didn’t come out firing threes, as the memory suggests. It was Drexler first making Jordan look bad. Not a good idea, as we know. Teams with athletic shooting guards tried to take advantage of the Bulls in that era releasing their guard on a Jordan drive or shot, like the Cavs would with Harper. That was why that was such a devastating trade, even if it weren’t made for Danny Ferry. So after the Trail Blazers went inside early to Kevin Duckworth, who I always thought was much underutilized by them, Drexler ran out on Jordan and then went at Jordan and scored: 4-0 Drexler. Uh oh.
Another of the controversies going into the game was Jackson having said the Trail Blazers would self destruct in the stretch and the Bulls just had to stay with them. That was the reputation the Trail Blazers had in that era, of being athletic and dumb. They weren’t so-called dumb, but they lacked a true isolation player to go to, as Drexler was more a transition player. So they’d often break down in late game half court situations. Of course, watching Cliff Robinson and Jerome Kersey’s shot selection didn’t do much to get them invitations to be Rhodes scholars.
Meanwhile, Jordan’s shooting was off to start, missing a couple of threes, and Drexler got off on one of those fast breaks and had a poster dunk over Jordan. You figure by this time knowing Jordan, he had to be fuming with Portland up early 15-7.
The Bulls and Jordan got going after that, though it would be more a Portland style game with a high scoring 33-30 first quarter lead for the Bulls. Jordan would hit his first three pointer on his third attempt, though no one could imagine what was coming. Jordan was 27 for 100 on threes that season and still holds the record for fewest threes in the All-Star contest with five the time he tried in 1990. Hey, I give him credit for trying when he never was a great three point shooter.
The Bulls went to the bench to open the second with Bobby Hansen, who would become famous later in the series as Craig Hodges was limited with an ankle problem. Jordan, who generally rested to start the second and fourth quarters, came back into the game with the Bulls leading 45-44 midway through the second, and the show began.
Jordan came in and posted up Drexler for a score to send the first message and then started knocking down those threes in what even stunned him as he would offer that shrug to Magic Johnson doing commentary courtside. By halftime, it was 35-8 for Jordan over Drexler and 66-51 Bulls. Drexler was now shooting air balls and the Trail Blazers were lost. Jordan’s 35 first half points broke a Finals record held by Elgin Baylor, and the Bulls basically ended it to open the second half with a big run. Not helping their national reputation, the Trail Blazers began launching off balanced threes, and the old Stadium began to shake when Jordan slam dunked an inbound lob pass for a 30 point lead with about five minutes left in the third. Chicago would lead 104-68 heading into the fourth after outscoring Portland 38-17 in the third.
Perhaps the greatest surprise was Jordan coming out again to start the fourth, though after a hard fall about three minutes in… Jackson still didn’t take Jordan out! Yes, there were messages being sent all over the place.
Finally, Jordan came out with just over six minutes left and when told he tied the then Finals record for threes co-held by Bill Laimbeer; Jordan cracked that if he knew that he would have shot more.