Part XVI: Last Dance for Jordan's Bulls, page 2
The 1997-98 season would be Michael Jordan's last with the Bulls. Following six NBA titles, Jordan is immortalized in the minds and hearts of everyone who ever saw him play. He goes into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, and it finally makes the Hall
It would be called the Last Dance. But hardly anyone was in a party mood to begin the 1997-98 season and the run for a second three-peat.
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The Bulls opened in stumbling fashion at 6-4 getting ready to head west for their circus trip. Though he wasn't playing, Pippen decided to go to get away from the early Chicago winter. But Pippen still was steaming from, among many slights real and imagined, Krause saying Pippen couldn't play in his charity game because of the surgery. So Pippen announced during the trip he wasn't going to play for the Bulls again. It was great timing, as usual, as Jordan was straining to keep the Bulls going with 49 points in an overtime win over the Clippers (Jordan scored all the overtime points and the game's last 13) and 33 in a win in Sacramento.
The Bulls were 12-9 when they began to turn it around, winning eight straight and 11 of 12 after returning home in December. In the last two games of the winning streak, Jordan scored 47 points against the Hawks and 41 against the Mavericks. Pippen returned in mid January with the Bulls 26-12, and the team took off from there. Though it still was Jordan carrying them, like his 45 points a few games after Pippen's return to beat Houston. Jordan remained the indomitable force.
The Bulls went into the All-Star break 34-15 and it still was Jordan. He was named All-Star game MVP for a third time in leading the East to a big win with 23 points, a team-high eight assists and six rebounds.
And it was no passing of the torch. It was Kobe Bryant's first All-Star game and in Madison Square Garden. Bryant already was the cocky kid who was ready to assume the throne. Bryant came out with a 360-degree dunk on a breakaway and a lob dunk. Bryant waved Karl Malone out of the post to go alone and took 11 of the West's first 13 shots. But Jordan taught Bryant some old school lessons taking Bryant into the post and scoring easily.
The Bulls had another eight-game winning streak coming out of the All-Star break and then a 13-game winning streak, going from Feb. 10 through April 7 with a record of 25-2. In that stretch, Jordan had 42 points back in Madison Square Garden for a win and back to back 41 and 40 points to beat Minnesota and Houston. The Bulls closed with the Knicks again, this time at home April 18, which would be Jordan's last regular season game in the United Center as a Bull. Jordan finished appropriately with 44 points in the Bulls win as they finished 62-20, now the best ever record in league history for three seasons.
They were ready for the playoffs and the last run.
The Bulls opened with the New Jersey Nets, whom they'd swept during the season. And like in the 1997 opening playoff round, it would be another that wasn't easy. Yet, still a sweep, the seventh in the last eight playoffs. Only in Jordan's return season in 1995 did a first round opponent avoid being swept. Talk about dominance.
Jordan wasn't shooting particularly well, but that didn't mean he wasn't scoring. He had hurt his index finger and was having difficulty feeling his shot. So he drove. Jordan was more a jump shooter in this incarnation. But he still had that amazing first step and now was much more powerful, able to take the hit and finish with the foul. Jordan hadn't worked out when he first came to the Bulls. But with the punishment he was getting from the Pistons in the late 1980s, Jordan hooked up with a young physical trainer from the University of Illinois-Chicago, Tim Grover, who was recommended by then Bulls physician John Hefferon, with whom Jordan was close. Jordan began a workout regimen that is much copied around the NBA today. Jordan probably put on 30 pounds of muscle from his early playing days with the Bulls as he came into the NBA weighing about 185. And Jordan by now was even a bit thicker, and maybe stronger. The workouts had evolved into a so-called Breakfast Club with Pippen and Ron Harper working out mornings at the gym in Jordan's home before shootaround or practice.
Jordan had his moments of flight, but they were now just moments. Still, he could get to the basket and closed the season against the Knicks attempting 24 free throws and opened the series against the Nets attempting 23 free throws in scoring 39 points as the Bulls gave up a 14-point fourth quarter lead in Game 1 but won in overtime. The 39 was the exact number Jordan scored in Game 6 of the 1997 Finals.
The Bulls went on to the sweep as Jordan closed out the Nets with a brilliant all around Game 3 with 38 points on 16-of-22 shooting. The finger was better. Jordan averaged more than 36 per game, and it was generally assumed he was retiring.
The Bulls moved on to play the dysfunctional Charlotte Hornets with the endless infighting between Larry Johnson an Alonzo Mourning.
The Bulls faced the Pacers, who had won 58 games under coach of the year Larry Bird and had put together a big, tough, physical team around shooter Reggie Miller, in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. It was a classic series and just the second seven-game series in the run of six championships.
(Jonathan Daniel/NBAE/Getty Images)
The Bulls won Game 1 easily and then narrowly lost game 2 when former Bull B.J. Armstrong had a big finish. But the Bulls went to Charlotte and Jordan averaged 30 sweeping there relatively easily and finishing off the 4-1 series at home as Jordan scored 33.
The Bulls then faced the Indiana Pacers, who had won 58 games under coach of the year Larry Bird and had put together a big, tough, physical team around shooter Reggie Miller and set up a classic and just the second seven-game series in the run of six championships.
The Bulls won the first two games as Jordan had 31 points and then 41 points, a team-best five assists in Game 2 to equal Pippen and four steals. Just another day at the office, eh?
The Pacers came back to win the next two back in Indiana, Game 4 when Miller hit a game-winning three with seventh tenths of a second remaining.
The teams split the next two, with each winning at home, to set up the decisive Game 7. Was this to be the end of the run? The consensus, though the game was in Chicago, was Jordan was tiring, given the effort required at 35 years old, and it was an aging team. Toni Kukoc was now starting for Rodman, and the Pacers' size was wearing down the Bulls inside. Indiana opened with a 20-8 run, and through the Bulls came back, Jordan ripped into the team at halftime for what he felt was dispirited play. Jordan's shot was off, so he drove, getting 15 free throws. But the key play wouldn't be reflected in the box score. Bird to this day believes it cost the Pacers a chance at a championship.
There was about six minutes remaining and Indiana was holding a three-point lead when Jordan and 7-3 Rik Smits got tied up for a jump ball. Jordan got the jump ball somehow and Steve Kerr tied it with a three and the Bulls soon moved ahead. Bird felt getting the jump would have been enough momentum to hold off the Bulls. Jordan had 28 points, but nine rebounds and eight assists, and in the last seven minutes, Jordan drew four fouls on drives to keep the Bulls ahead and they went on to a five-point win. It was the Jazz again for the championship. But this time, opening in Salt Lake City because the teams had identical records, though the Jazz had swept the two-game season series and had rested for 10 days while the Bulls were pushed to the limit against the Pacers. Everything seemed in place for the end of the dynasty.
The Jazz won Game 1 as Jordan had 33. But the Bulls won Game 2 as Jordan had 17 fourth quarter points, easily outplaying Karl Malone. One of the criticisms, if you could call it that, about the Bulls of the 90s and Jordan was that they never matched up against truly great teams. And like Tiger Woods today, Jordan had no true No. 2 star to measure against. But Jordan took every star and MVP and dominated then in the Finals. And if the measure of a great player is performing at the biggest time, it was again Jordan's domination of the opposing star that made the difference. Jordan consistently outscored Malone in the fourth quarters—with the classic coming in Game 6—as it was 17-1 in Game 2, 11-2 in Game 4 and 16-6 in Game 6.
Game 3 was a disaster for the Jazz, losing in record fashion back in Chicago 96-54. The Bulls assumed control of the series with a four-point win in a defense dominated Game 4 to take a 3-1 lead. But like in 1993, the Bulls needed another long plane trip. Malone came back with his game of the series with 39 points and now Pippen was in trouble with back problems and shooting two of 16. It was 3-2. The Jazz was back home where they didn't lose. Pippen would likely be useless for however long the series went and Harper had flu symptoms. It was, once again, up to Michael.
The Bulls were keeping Game 6 in control, but could not take over. They trailed by five entering the final quarter. With 42 seconds left, John Stockton hit a three to give Utah an 86-83 lead. It was bedlam.
What would follow didn't have a name like "The Shot" in 1989, but it could have. Maybe "The Sequence." It was, arguably, the biggest and most impressive series of plays in Jordan's career.
And this at the end of a game in which Jordan was practically holding off the Jazz alone. It was one of those come-full-cycle moments as no Bull other than Jordan attempted more that two free throws in the game. Pippen left the game for much of the first half with that bad back and only Kukoc attempted more than seven shots with 14. Jordan took 35. He had to win this one like he did more than a decade before. And he knew, also, that this was the final moments of his NBA career.
First, Jordan drove past Bryon Russell and laid the ball high off the backboard to get the Bulls back within 86-85 with 37 seconds left. Stockton came down leisurely to run some clock as Malone settled along the baseline on the left side. Jordan knew what was coming.
It was never just talent, though he had so much. It was an almost encyclopedic (Googlish?) knowledge of the game, brilliant instincts and constant study for years. Jordan often knew plays better than the team running them and I remember him once telling a young guard—I think it was Gary Payton—when he was looking quizzically at the bench for the play call that the team was running a high pick and roll and instructed the kid where he was supposed to be.
Utah's plays under coach Jerry Sloan weren't a secret. It was in the execution. Still, Jordan recognized what was coming. Jeff Hornacek was cutting through, but Jordan let him go and watched Malone settle into the left post for the pass. Before Malone could get in position for a shot or foul, Jordan swooped in along the baseline as Malone received the ball and hammered the ball away from Malone and retrieved it. The Bulls didn't call time out with 18.9 seconds left.
Jordan ambled up court eying the defense. He went to the left side on the wing to set up Russell and wait. There was no help coming after Steve Kerr's winner in Game 6 the year before. Jordan went right and turned in toward the basket around the free throw line. Russell lost his balance as he was backpeddling. No, he wasn't pushed. There was some contact, incidental at best with Jordan's long left arm extended for balance. Jordan pulled up and stepped back and...
Call it, "The Pose."
The ball went in with 5.2 seconds left as Russell tried in vain to scramble back and Jordan held his right hand aloft in a posed follow through.
Stockton missed a three and it was over.
The Bulls had won their sixth championship with Jordan. Jordan finished with 45 points in taking 15 of the Bulls' 19 free throws and 35 of their 67 shots. Jordan scored 16 in the fourth quarter and made all eight of his free throws. He had a team high four steals and three three pointers.
Because of the circumstances—the 1998 NBA Finals, the shot for the championship, likely his final season—many believe it was Jordan's greatest game.
We know it didn't end there, after all. Jordan would return in 2001 to play for the Washington Wizards, where he had become general manager. He had some big games, like 51 points in a win over Charlotte, one of three game-winners he would hit for the Wizards on Jan. 31, 2002 to beat the Cavs (of course) at the buzzer and nearly another All-Star MVP in 2003 before the game went into a second overtime and Kevin Garnett triumphed. Jordan needed knee surgery, and it would finally end in Philadelphia, where he reached so many of those scoring milestones, in a desultory loss April 16, 2003 as Jordan had 15 points and a curtain call for a standing ovation. He smiled afterward and said, "This is the final retirement."
Michael Jordan is immortalized in the minds and hearts of everyone who ever saw him play. He goes into the Basketball Hall of Fame the weekend of Sept 10-12. It finally makes the Hall of Fame complete.