1997-98 SEASON IN REVIEW
The Bulls' Triple Double
Six championships in eight seasons. A repeat three-peat, if you will. The Chicago Bulls knew it wouldn't be easy, but they also knew that if they could do it, their place in the pantheon of the NBA's greatest teams would be assured.
The Bulls opened the 1997-98 campaign with All-Star Scottie Pippen on the injured list after undergoing surgery on the sore foot he had hobbled upon for much of the previous season. Pippen missed the first 35 games, but Toni Kukoc did an excellent job taking his place in the starting lineup. After breaking from the gate 8-7, the team hit its stride by winning 16 of 20 and was 24-11 when Pippen returned to action.
The resurgent Indiana Pacers, a veteran team led by rookie coach Larry Bird, overtook Chicago and held a half-game lead at the All-Star break. But Chicago won 25 of its next 29 and captured the Eastern Conference with a 62-20 mark as Michael Jordan captured his 10th scoring title (28.7 ppg) and fifth MVP trophy, Dennis Rodman earned his seventh rebounding crown (15.0 rpg) and Pippen had a typically outstanding all-around second half.
The Pacers, led by Reggie Miller (19.5 ppg) and Rik Smits (16.7 ppg) and bolstered by the acquisition of Chris Mullin (11.3 ppg, an NBA-best .939 free throw percentage), crossed the finish line with the second-beat mark in the East at 58-24, earning Coach of the Year honors for Bird. In the Atlantic Division, Alonzo Mourning (19.2 ppg) and Tim Hardaway (18.9 ppg, 8.3 apg) helped Pat Riley's Miami Heat run away from the field and finish at 55-27, 12 games ahead of improving New Jersey and injury-riddled New York.
The Jazz had stiff competition in the West. The Los Angeles Lakers, with exciting talent like Shaquille O'Neal (28.3 ppg, 11.4 rpg, a league-leading .584 field goal percentage), Eddie Jones (16.9 ppg, 2.00 spg) and the tantalizing Kobe Bryant (15.4 ppg), finished atop the Pacific Division at 61-21 along with the Seattle SuperSonics, who slotted Vin Baker (19.2 ppg) into Shawn Kemp's spot without missing a beat as Gary Payton (19.2 ppg, 8.3 apg, 2.26 spg) orchestrated another outstanding season. San Antonio, with Rookie of the Year Tim Duncan (21.1 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 2.51 bpg) forming a remarkable Twin Towers with David Robinson (21.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 2.63 bpg), stayed on Utah's heels throughout the season and finished at 56-26, a mark that was matched by the Phoenix Suns.
The Bulls eased past New Jersey 3-0 and Charlotte 4-1 in the first two rounds of the playoffs, then secured a berth in the NBA Finals by outlasting the stubborn Indiana Pacers in seven games. That set up a rematch against the Jazz, who struggled past the veteran Houston Rockets in five games in the first round before whipping San Antonio 4-1 and stunning the Lakers with a four-game sweep.
The Jazz went into the Finals riding high off their series against Los Angeles and with the benefit of nine days rest, while the Bulls were coming off a hard-fought series against Indiana. What's more, Rodman was nursing a thumb injury. Many thought the Bulls were beginning to look their age and were ripe to be knocked off, but Jordan, for one, wasn't buying it. "I'm just enjoying the moment," he said on the eve of the Finals. "We don't take anything for granted this time. We're having fun and appreciating each step we take."
The Bulls gained a split of the first two games of the Finals in Salt Lake City by winning Game 2, 93-88, behind Jordan's 37 points. Chicago smothered Utah 98-54 in Game 3, holding the Jazz to the fewest points in any game-regular season or playoffs-since the advent of the 24-second shot clock prior to the 1954-55 season. While many who earlier had written off Chicago were now leaving Utah for dead, the Jazz sent the series back to Salt Lake City by splitting the next two games in Chicago, dropping Game 4 86-82 but surprising the Bulls 83-81 in Game 5 as Malone broke out of his series-long slump with 39 points.
Game 6 proved to be another magical moment for the Michael Jordan memory book. With Pippen suffering from a back injury and barely able to hobble up the floor, Jordan knew he had to carry the team. And that's exactly what he did, scoring a series-high 45 points and making the steal and game-winning basket with 5.2 seconds left that gave the Bulls an 87-86 victory and their repeat three-peat.
"Big surprise," said NBA Commissioner David Stern as he presented Jordan with his sixth NBA Finals MVP Trophy. "Michael Jordan, you grace us with your presence."
Jordan also was the MVP at the midseason All-Star Game at New York's Madison Square Garden. Amidst much fanfare about passing the torch on to a younger generation, Jordan scored one for the old folks by tallying 23 points to lead the East to a 135-114 victory.
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