Part X: Jordan's Bulls go back-to-back, page 2
In Game 6 of the 1992 Finals, Jordan scored 12 of his game-high 33 in the last six minutes as the Bulls pulled away and danced on the scorers table. It was party time in Chicago.
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From pretenders a year before, the Bulls were now unquestionably the class of the NBA. Losses were rare, and they were close contests when they occurred. After one, they’d usually start another big streak. That 14th straight win was at home against Charlotte with Jordan getting a triple-double. The Bulls then lost by three in Philadelphia as Jordan had 32 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists.
The Bulls then ripped off eight of nine, though the Lakers got a revenge win back in Chicago, and the Bulls then won 13 straight into late January after a narrow loss in Milwaukee in which Jordan scored 44.
There rarely had been anything like this in NBA history as the Bulls and Jordan were blowing through the season and were 37-5 heading out west again for the Ice Capades trip in early February.
The Bulls lost in San Antonio and Houston, the latter always giving the Bulls trouble even in their championship seasons, and you can only imagine what the Rockets would have had with Olajuwon and Jordan, that potential draft trade omission probably the greatest oversight in league history in the 1984 draft.
After winning in Dallas and repaying the Lakers with another win in L.A., the Bulls played the game of the season in a triple overtime loss in Utah. They are the kind of games as theater that make the regular season worthwhile, a back and forth thriller. Jordan played 56 minutes, but couldn’t finish as he grew frustrated with the Jazz’ physical tactics and ended up bumping a referee and eventually being suspended for the next game, which was in Phoenix as the Bulls lost. Jordan headed straight to Orlando for the All-Star game and extra golf, which some players joked was Jordan’s plan all along.
The Bulls wouldn’t let up coming out of the All-Star break, winning three, then losing at the buzzer to Cleveland despite 46 points from Jordan, winning three more and then losing by a basket to the Pistons, winning three again and losing by a basket to Indiana and then winning eight straight, the last win in Washington as Jordan scored 51 points. So count ‘em up. That was 20 games since the All-Star break with the Bulls losing three by a combined total of five points.
And now Jordan was heating up again. His strategy continued to evolve. He had begun the previous season to start games slowly to get his teammates involved and then finish scoring strong. Now he was doing that over the season, holding his scoring down early in the season and then pushing toward the playoffs.
That last eight-game winning streak ended with a three-point loss to the Magic as Jordan had 25 points and 15 rebounds. Jordan followed that with 50 in a win over Denver and 44 the next game to beat the Cavs. The guy truly was relentless.
The Bulls were rolling into the playoffs with a 31-10 road record and 67-15 overall, tied for the fourth best record in league history. The Bulls won that 67th game to close the season with a blowout over the Pistons, that challenge now just a memory.
The Bulls opened the playoffs dominating the Miami Heat with a pair of blowout wins at home and then heading to Miami for what figured to be a clincher. So how’s this kind of day for you: Play 36 holes of golf and then score 56 points to rally your team to victory. No, Jordan didn’t drive the bus, but you knew if he did, it would have gone faster than it ever had.
April, as anyone who lives in Chicago knows, is just an extension of winter. So here were the Bulls up 2-0 and headed for Miami at perhaps South Florida’s best time of year. Michael was going to get in some golf. He never slept much, perhaps three hours a night the stories went, with regular late night card games with his buddies and then early morning rounds of golf. The guy just never seemed to tire.
I can’t be sure, but the rumor that day was Jordan had played multiple rounds of golf before the game, and the Miami players came out running and firing and took a halftime lead. Maybe Jordan had done too much?
So Michael put in 37 second half points, the best playoff half in franchise history, and finished with his second highest scoring playoff game with 56 points as the Bulls pulled away for the 119-114 victory and the sweep.
It was on to New York, where Pat Riley had come that season to rescue the franchise. Riley brought an attitude not seen lately in New York. And a bit of that Pistons play book. The Knicks had won 51 games thanks to the additions of Xavier McDaniel and Anthony Mason to John Starks and Charles Oakley. It wasn’t the most talented or athletic group other than Patrick Ewing, but you didn’t want to meet them in an alley. Let’s say had things not worked out with the Knicks they could have found employment with loan sharks doing some collecting. They were a group of players who didn’t jump much, but if you did you’d better watch your back while you were.
The result was a brutal, hard fought, tough series that would be one of two in the Bulls six championships to go to a seventh game.
It turned out to be Oakley making the first statement, a flagrant foul against Bill Cartwright just after Game 1 opened. Riley’s message was clear. The Knicks couldn’t keep up on talent, so they would try to intimidate the Bulls as Detroit previously did.
Jackson said it was clear immediately what Riley had instructed his team: Foul every time and challenge the refs to make the call. There was no way they would do that and thus the Knicks would get away with plenty. Jackson joked at the time Riley’s The Winner Within book should be renamed “Winning at All Costs.” The two great coaches began what would be a running sideshow of trying to gain an edge from the officials.
Jackson insisted he respected Riley’s talents as a motivator and the need to respond in becoming the league’s first ever million dollar coach. Yes, a bit of psychology there as well. But Jackson lamented the game suffers and Riley’s ends didn’t justify his means. Riley didn’t say in public about Jackson what he said privately.
So it was up to Jordan to level the playing field after the Knicks won Game 1 in Chicago to change the tenor of the series. McDaniel was going after Pippen as Rodman did, and there was the famous scene later in the series of Jordan yelling in McDaniel’s face that if he wanted to go after someone to try Jordan. Jordan likened it to being in school and seeing the bully picking on your little brother. Bullies really are cowards, and Jordan showed it with McDaniel as the Knicks would back off.
It was Jordan in a fury as rarely seen.
The Bulls won Game 2, and Game 3 in New York was the key. The Bulls led most of the game, though it was close, and angry throughout. The defining moment came late in the fourth quarter when Jordan drove to the basket. McDaniel and Ewing converged, both slugging Jordan. Jordan hung strong and finished the play, blood rushing from his nose as he scored. Ewing and McDaniel went down, and with Ewing under his feet, Jordan shook his fist menacingly over the supine Ewing. It was a symbolic moment, the Knicks on the floor and Jordan, bleeding but the victor. Jordan finished the three-point play and the Bulls went on to a 94-86 victory as Jordan had 32 points and nine rebounds.
But the Knicks wouldn’t go away. They won Games 4 and 6 at home, setting up a Game 7 back in Chicago. The budding dynasty faced its first true test.
Jordan, as he often did, spent the morning talking with his father about how to approach the game. James said to come out aggressive and the team would follow.
Michael did. He scored 18 points in the first quarter, 16 of the team’s first 25 and finished the first half with 29 points. The Knicks were hanging in, down three early in the third quarter when Jordan came out of a timeout leading a 10-2 run and then an 18-6 spurt early in the fourth quarter put the Knicks away. Jordan finished with 42 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals and the beginnings of a heck of a rivalry for a few years.
Next was the Cavaliers, still hoping to become that dynasty that was supposed to be theirs and not the Bulls starting in 1989. The Cavs had recovered from a series of injuries to put together a 57-win season, though still 10 games behind the Bulls. Of course, it was the Bulls 10 games behind the Cavs going into the playoffs in 1989.
The Cavs split the first two games in Chicago and the Bulls split in Cleveland before returning home to win Game 5 with none of the games very close. Game 6 would be. Back in Richfield, Jordan was having a miserable game, five for 20 for 13 points through three quarters as Pippen was the leading scorer. But the fourth quarter was Jordan time. He scored 16 points, while also having eight rebounds and eight assists in the game, and after Mark Price tied it with a three with 47 seconds left, Jordan drove and scored and was fouled by Larry Nance for the winner as the Cavs turned the ball over on the final possession. It was a heck of a Cavs team, but they picked the wrong decade to be good.
It was on to play the Trail Blazers, the matchup the Lakers thwarted the previous season. It wasn’t the same, dominant Portland team as in 1991-92, though they led the Western Conference with 57 wins. Jordan had won his third MVP award that season, but there was talk that Clyde Drexler deserved it for all he’d done for the Trail Blazers. As always, Jordan heard the talk.
It would become known as “the shrug.”
Jordan had gained length for his shot, though he never became a great three-point threat. In the first half of Game 1 of the Finals, he was perhaps the best ever from that range.
Jordan came out bombing, hitting six three-pointers in an 18-minute stretch in the first half, and 35 points total in the first half. The Bulls led by 15 at halftime and by 36 after three quarters. After hitting his sixth three-pointer in that run, Jordan turned to the national TV commentators with Magic Johnson on the crew and raised his palms as if to say he didn’t know what was going on, either. Sort of, “I can’t explain it.”
Everyone else could: He was Michael Jordan.
Jordan finished with 39 points and 11 assists in playing just 34 minutes and showing it was just a matter of how many games the Bulls were going to finish this one in.
Though Jordan was not done with Drexler. He relentlessly hounded him throughout the series, overplaying him and not letting him get to the ball often. Drexler was a mess in the series, shooting better than 50 percent in just one game and a miserable 40.7 percent for the series after shooting almost 50 percent in the playoffs until that point and 47 percent during the season. No one on Portland shot poorer than Drexler in that series while Jordan shot almost 53 percent. There never again were comparisons suggesting Drexler was anywhere close in talent or ability to Jordan. Or in deserving awards.
Portland rallied to win Game 2 in overtime despite 39 from Jordan as the Bulls blew a 10-point lead in the last four and a half minutes. The Bulls moved on to Portland and won Game 3 by 10 as Jackson let the Dobermans loose and the Trail Blazers scored just 39 second half points.
Portland benched its big guys, Kevin Duckworth and Buck Williams, for much of Game 4 to go to a smaller lineup. It helped the Trail Blazers erase a Bulls lead all game until the last three minutes and even the series with a five-point win.
But Jordan came surging back with 46 points in Game 5 and the Bulls dominated throughout and pulled away to an easy victory. They were now headed home to try to celebrate in Chicago after winning the 1991 title on the road. But it looked like they’d need a seventh game.
The Trail Blazers took control and led by 15 entering the fourth quarter with Jordan taking his customary rest. Jackson employed a lineup of irregulars with Bobby Hansen hitting a big three as momentum began to turn against Portland. They were known as a fragile team. The brutal scouting report coming into the series with the Bulls was “they will self destruct if we show them the way.”
Jordan returned and took over, scoring 12 of his game-high 33 in the last six minutes as the Bulls pulled away and danced on the scorers table. It was party time in Chicago. The three-peat seemed just a formality given this kind of team dominance and no one in the NBA close to challenging Jordan.
No one in the world, really.