Chicago 4, Utah 2
With their sixth title (and third consecutive crown) secured in a thrilling 87-86 win in front of 19,911 raucous fans at Utah's Delta Center, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were reveling in their most satisfying championship celebration yet.
Unlike the previous two seasons, when the Bulls had the home-court edge throughout the Finals and won at the United Center, Chicago found itself opposed in the Finals by a determined Utah Jazz squad that finished with an identical 62-20 record and had wrestled away the home-court advantage by virtue of a season sweep over the Bulls.
For the first time, Chicago faced a familiar opponent in the championship series, having beaten the Jazz 4-games-to-2 for the 1997 crown. Whereas the Jazz may have been happy just to reach the Finals a year ago, this year they would only be satisfied by reaching the top.
The rematch lived up to expectations of a classic. The Jazz fired the first salvo with an 88-85 win in Game 1 that put the Bulls behind in the Finals for the first time since 1991. The series proceeded in a similar vein. Save for a 42-point Bulls win in Game 3, every game was decided by five points or less.
Chicago roared back to win the next three games, to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. While talk turned to the inevitable coronation of the Bulls prior to Game 5 at Chicago's United Center, Utah's Karl Malone had other ideas. The Mailman, maligned early in the series for sub-par play, scored 39 points - every one of which was essential to Utah's 83-81 win. Only hours after talk of a three-peat, conversations centered around whether or not Utah could return home to the Delta Center and unseat Chicago.
However, just as it was in 1997, it was Jordan who again thwarted Utah's hopes of reaching the pinnacle, stringing together consistent performance after another, despite often-times woeful shooting. Jordan recorded his 23rd 45-point game of his playoff career in Game 6 when it counted most. He punctuated his performance with a jumper over Bryon Russell with 5.2 seconds left, a vintage M.J. shot that gave Chicago the one-point win and heightened the legend.
Scottie Pippen returned from a first-half back injury with a courageous performance that enhanced his reputation as one of the best all-around players in NBA history, capping a season in which Jordan and Pippen took on an even more prominent offensive load on a Bulls squad whose bench had less firepower than a year ago.
"It was the toughest route, toughest challenge in the six championships that we've won," said Jordan, named the NBA Finals MVP for a record sixth time. "In some people's eyes no one expected us to fulfill this, and that was part of the challenge. And we had to do it against a team that played well all season long, played at home, had a crowd that was energetic and kept them motivated."
Immediately after the game, talk focused on the possible breakup of the team. The dynasty ended the season shrouded in widespread speculation as to whether or not free agents Jordan, Pippen and Dennis Rodman might return. Almost lost amid the conjecture was the Bulls' place in the annals of sport's great dynasties. In NBA history, only the Boston Celtics, who won 16 titles, and the Minneapolis-Los Angeles Lakers, who won 11, rank ahead of the Bulls.
"I can't say how we would stack up against any of the teams of the past," Jordan said. "The times were different, the players were different and the game was different. We may have had a difficult time back then, but I'm sure those teams would have had a tough time with the game as it is today, too. We as players just play the game."
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