1998 NBA Finals: Chicago 4, Utah 2
Jordan's Jumper Secures Chicago's Sixth Title
The shot looked like so many others during his remarkable career.
The defender loses his footing and falls to the court as he tries to keep the best player in the world from blowing past him. Michael Jordan seizes the moment. He stops on a dime, elevates and lets fly with the shot that will win or lose the game. Nothing but net.
Nothing but an 87-86 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
Nothing but a sixth title in an eight-year span.
Nothing but another tableau to enhance the legend.
June 14, 1998, was the last game Jordan played with the Chicago Bulls, and the ending was storybook perfect. His Highness scored 45 points and hit the game-winning basket with 5.2 seconds left after having stolen the ball seconds earlier to set up this dramatic finale.
"Big surprise," NBA Commissioner David Stern said as he presented the Finals MVP trophy after the game. "Michael Jordan, get over here. You grace us with your presence."
Even without the historical context of it signaling the end to the Chicago dynasty, the series was big. And even though it ended the way many expected, it began on a much different note for the Bulls.
Utah, fresh off a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals and a 10-day layoff, pulled out an 88-85 victory over Chicago in Salt Lake City. For the first time since 1991, when the Lakers jumped out to a 1-0 lead, the Bulls fournd themselves trailing in the championship series. And it wasn't just that the Jazz won; it was how they won Game 1 that concerned Chicago.
Utah outscored Chicago 52-34 in the paint. The Jazz picked up 21 of those points in transition as they consistently beat the Bulls downcourt. And the Jazz had just 13 turnovers. In addition, Utah's reserves outscored Chicago's, 22-8.
Jordan finished with 33 points. In reality, he may have been finished in the first half when it took every ounce of his energy to keep the Bulls close. In the second half, Jordan scored 13 points and was just 5-for-15 from the field. He missed several shots late and allowed the 24-second shot clock to expire in overtime on a key possession.
"Fatigue was a factore at the end of the game," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said.
Not for Jazz guard John Stockton, who scored seven of his team-high 24 points in overtime. He hit a crucial runner in the lane with 9.3 seconds left in the extra period and followed with two free throws with 3.5 seconds left to ice the victory.
"I just know we're going to have to play a lot better than we did tonight," Stockton said after Utah's victory. "They are champions."
Chicago showed its championship stuff two nights later, winning 93-88 at the Delta Center. "It was just a matter of executing down the stretch," said Jordan, who scored 37 points. "We found ourselves in the same situation we had in Game 1, but this time we executed and got to all the loose balls. We went to the free throw line, and defensively we held tough."
The Jazz arrived in Chicago for Game 3 and fell with an historic thud. The Bulls drilled the Jazz 96-54 for the largest margin of victory in Finals history.
"This is actually the score?" Jazz coach Jerry Sloan asked when handed the final stats. "I thought it was 196. It seemed like they scored 196."
The Jazz melted under the heat of a searing defensive performance led by Scottie Pippen, and Jordan and Toni Kukoc combined for 40 points to guide what appeared to be a cast of thousands on offense.
Jackson called Kukoc the X-factor in the game. But Pippen was the deciding factor. He was at his best in the first half, scoring all 10 of his points as the Bulls jumped to a 49-31 lead. Defensifvely, Pippen dominated. He opened the game defending the offensively limited Greg Ostertag. That matchup allowed Pippen to roam and disrupt the Utah offense. He slid in front of Karl Malone on two occasions to draw a charge. He popped outside and made life unbearable for Stockton, who finished with two points and five turnovers.
Indeed, the normally sure-handed Jazz turned the ball over 26 times. With Pippen on the perimeter, every entry pass into the low post became and adventure.
"It's a luxury for us to have a defender like Scottie," Jackson said. "He's able to hang tight with whoever he's playing and recover to help on our defensive sets so Utah can't operate.
"Scottie is capable of being a one-man wrecking crew, and this was a pure example of that. His defense is what really blew the game open."
In Game 4, Jordan had 34 points and came up with two big baskets in the final 2:11 of Chicago's 86-82 victory. On defense, Dennis Rodman put the clamps on Malone down the stretch.
As well as Jordan and Rodman performed, the player who titled the series in Chicago's favor was Pippen. He had 28 points, nine rebounds and five assists in Game 4, and he set the tone with three offensive rebounds in the first two minutes. He also drained three three-pointers in the first quarter.
As for Malone, the longer the series went on, the smaller the Jazz power forward seemed to become. Until Game 5, that is. The Mailman delivered 39 points and nine rebounds to lead Utah to an 83-81 victory in Chicago.
Jordan had 28 points but was just 9-for-26 from the field in Chicago's first attempt to close out the series. "I would have loved to have won it here at home," he said. "It would have been a great scenario."
An even greater scenario unfolded for Jordan and the Bulls after they returned to Salt Lake City for Game 6. The enduring -- and final -- image of Jordan's career with the team was forged when the Bulls needed it most.
With Chicago trailing by one point in the final minute, Jordan stripped the ball from Malone and brought the ball downcourt. Teammate Steve Kerr was on the wing, guarded by Stockton. Jordan knew Stockton couldn't leave Kerr to help on defense. That left Jordan alone with Bryon Russell.
Jordan stutter-stepped, then put the ball on the court with a cross-over dribble. Russell reached, and as soon as he did, Jordan was off. Jump shot. Good. Chicago 87, Utah 86.
"When Russell reached, I took advantage of the moment," Jordan said. "I never doubted myself. I never doubted the whole game."
It was eerily similar to Game 1 of the Finals one year earlier, when Jordan beat Russell with a jump shot to win the game.
Jackson had witnessed many of Jordan's remarkable games. The 38 points Jordan scored against Utah in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals -- when he was so weak from a virus that he had trouble putting on his jersey -- had ranked at the top. But what Jordan did on this night bumped that performance to No. 2 on Jackson's list.
"I didn't think he could top that game," Jackson said. "He topped it tonight. I think it was the best performance I've seen in a critical situation and critical game in a series."
Afterward, the world was forced to wait. Would Jordan return, or would he retire? Or would he retire, only to return again? The generation's most compelling athlete kepts fans on the edges of their seats.
"If and when that time comes when I have to walk away, I hope no one will look at me and think any less," Jordan said. "I have another life I have to get to at some point in time. Hopefully, everyone will understand."
And what if the shot in Game 6 was the end of his time with the Bulls? Was that the way Jordan always envisioned going out?
"If that's the case," he said, smiling, "yes."
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