Part XV: Bulls hold off Jazz for fifth title, page 2

The 1997 NBA Finals would begin a two-year contest for the Bulls and Utah Jazz and it would be the poetic bookends for Michael Jordan. That season's MVP, Karl Malone, would also be shown up.

Michael Jordan Hall of Fame

Michael Jordan
Celebrating the team's fifth world championship was perhaps the last great moment of pure joy for Jordan with the Bulls, as the fissures in that impregnable dam of success were becoming deeper and more dangerous.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

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The Bulls opened up the second half stretch run with a victory over Charlotte, a 54-win team that season, as Jordan scored 43. That started a run of 11 wins in 12 games and the Bulls and Jordan were off again. With no chance down the stretch to break their 72-win record of the previous season, the Bulls glided into the last week and lost the last two games to end 69-13. But, as they had continued to say, it all didn’t mean a thing without the ring. It was time to start the drive for five.

What I remember most about the opening series with the Washington Wizards was what a con job it was for the Bulls. The Wizards had a lot of talent with Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland and six regulars averaging in double figures. After years of losing, the team seemed mostly relieved just to be taken seriously. Current Bulls assistant Bernie Bickerstaff had come in and revived the team in mid-season, and the players appeared in awe of whom they were playing. It seemed enough for them that the Bulls players, especially Jordan, were optimistic about the Wizards’ future. And Jordan was more than willing to oblige, saying after each game how good the Wizards were, how far they’d go and how difficult it was to defeat them. This was a team of the future, Jordan promised.

The Bulls won the first two games at home with Jordan scoring 55 in Game 2, as the Wizards hung in until the end and the Bulls needed all the points. Washington had the lead in the last 20 seconds of Game 3 when Jordan missed. But Pippen drove and dunked off the miss and the Wizards missed a last attempt and were swept. Close, but without a win. The Wizards left happy, never to get close again with that group.

Then came Lenny Wilkens again. Poor Lenny. Wilkens had led the Atlanta Hawks back and they probably should have won—could have, certainly—the first two games in Chicago. Pippen hit his sixth three of the game to break a 97 tie in the last minute for the Game 1 win and then the Hawks won Game 2 in Chicago to, in theory, steal the home court advantage. Though that didn’t mean much in that era to Bulls teams that routinely won playoff games on the road. Dennis Rodman had been straying, and before Game 3, Jordan complained he had to lead the team in rebounding instead of Rodman. Pippen added if Rodman wasn’t going to rebound, at least he should stop leading everyone in technicals.

So Jordan and Pippen went out and backed up their words with defense as the Bulls won Game 3 easily, holding Atlanta to 80 points. The Bulls then won Game 4, though a 16-2 fourth quarter run brought Atlanta within three in the last minute. Jordan drove and was fouled and hit two free throws and then clinched the win stealing an inbounds pass and dunking on the break. The Bulls returned home and closed it easily in five.

It was then Pat Riley and Miami, and although the Bulls were not as dominant as the season before, they were tougher because they had to be. The Bulls came from 16 behind early in Game 1 to win as Jordan had 37 points and absolutely tortured Krause favorite Dan Majerle. My favorite moment was with the Bulls getting ahead in the last minute and Miami loading up on Jordan. Taking a screen from Luc Longley on the left wing, Jordan split a double team with Alonzo Mourning coming to help Majerle, drove past Tim Hardaway and then over Voshon Lenard at the basket to score. So much for being 35 years old. He could not only still do it, but still do it when it mattered most, another of the ultimate tests of greatness.

The Bulls took Games 2 and 3, and then Mourning predicted a win and the Heat, in a brutally physical effort, did win Game 4. Though it was still a beautiful night for Jordan fans because after an unusually slow start, Jordan brought the Bulls within one by scoring 20 of 21 Bulls points before Miami held on.

Jordan would continue to say the overt physical tactics of Riley’s Heat was becoming personal. There was a famous pregame handshake when Mourning stuck out his hand and Jordan ignored it. Michael was angry and confident. Led by Jordan with a dozen, the Bulls opened up a 16-2 lead and breezed to the conference championship and despite the bumps, the Bulls were 11-2 heading to the Finals to play the Utah Jazz.

This 1997 Finals would begin a two-year contest for the Bulls and Jazz and it would be the poetic bookends for Jordan.

The MVP would also be shown up. In 1992, many thought it should have been Clyde Drexler. In 1993, it was Charles Barkley. This season it was Karl Malone. So there was Karl Malone at the free throw line with under 10 seconds left and the score tied in Game 1. Malone missed both free throws. That was the famous afternoon when Scottie Pippen walked by Malone at the free throw line and taunted that, “The mailman doesn’t deliver on Sunday.”

Jordan grabbed the second miss and called timeout with 7.5 seconds left with the score tied at 82. Jordan got the ball on the left wing against Bryon Russell. The Jazz elected not to double team. Jordan crossed over Russell, who recovered but too late. Jordan went up and the ball went through the net at the buzzer for the Game 1 victory as Jordan ended with 31 points and eight assists.

The Bulls blew out the Jazz in Game 2 as Jordan had 38 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists with Pippen missing a pair of late layups on passes from Jordan to prevent the triple-double. Jordan let Pippen know. They were having fun.

The Jazz had won 22 straight games at home and continued that streak to 24 to even the series 2-2 with the pivotal Game 5 in Salt Lake City. Given the circumstances to come for Game 5, Game 4 got merely an asterisk. But Game 4 was the famous Gator Lode game, when Bulls players on the bench by mistake were given by an enthusiastic ball boy the heavy liquid instead of Gatorade. Gator Lode is used more post game to replenish carbohydrates. It’s a thick, syrupy drink and late in the game, several Bulls players began suffering cramps and had to leave the game at various times. The Bulls probably should have won with a five point lead with less than three minutes to go. But the Jazz surged past them, setting up the pivotal Game 5.

And who knows what it was going into that game. Bad pizza? Virus? Flu? In any case, Jordan was a mess coming to the game from the Bulls’ hideaway in Park City. He was violently ill. He slept through shootaround in his room and slept on the trainers’ table with a bucket nearby for nausea before the game.

It was a remarkable performance by Jordan, and that would have been if he were not ill. Jordan spent time during the game wobbling on the bench in timeouts and with an ice pack on his head. Still, he played 44 minutes. Jordan scored 38 points and had seven rebounds, the same number as Rodman, and five assists, as many as the Jazz’ John Stockton.

And down the stretch it was Jordan, as usual. Jordan scored 17 second quarter points to keep the Bulls in it after Utah led by 16 and 13 after one. Then with the Bulls down two in the last minute, Jordan was fouled and made one of two free throws. Jordan then got the rebound on the miss (one of his 11) and passed to Pippen, who passed back to Jordan for a three-pointer to win the game and send the Bulls back to Chicago one game from a fifth championship.

The Jazz were facing the misfortune of being great in the wrong decade, the Michael Jordan decade. Utah led much Game 6 and by nine in the fourth quarter before the Bulls came back with big plays from reserves like Brian Williams and Jud Buechler. Though the biggest would come later. After Bryon Russell tied it at 86 in the last seconds with a three, the Bulls got Jordan on the left wing. This time the Jazz doubled with Stockton, but Jordan passed to Steve Kerr at the top of the key for the basket with five seconds left. Scottie Pippen then sealed it with a steal of the inbounds pass as the Bulls danced in the United Center to their fifth championship.

Jordan finished with a game-high 39 points, tied Rodman for game-high in rebounds and led the Bulls in assists, along with adding a block and a steal.

It was perhaps the last great moment of pure joy for Jordan with the Bulls, as the fissures in that impregnable dam of success were becoming deeper and more dangerous.

Michael Jordan | Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame | Class of 2009