Cohen: A Chronicle of the 1994-95 Season (Part 3)
By Josh Cohen
ORLANDO -- It was the matchup the entire basketball universe was waiting for.
When Michael Jordan returned to the hardwood in March of 1995 after a year-and-a-half hiatus to chase fly balls and scramble for doubles and triples on the diamond, it was expected that the rejuvenated Chicago Bulls would eventually clash with the surging Orlando Magic in the playoffs.
After the Magic finished off the Boston Celtics and their historic arena and subsequent to the Bulls’ elimination of the Charlotte Hornets in the First Round, the stage was set, the combatants were ready and the truth would sure be told.
Though Orlando had the home-court advantage in its conference semifinal series against Chicago and in spite of their potent offense and inspiring performance against the Celtics in the opening round, the Magic were considered heavy underdogs.
It had been five years since Jordan had lost a playoff series and practically nobody outside of Central Florida figured that a franchise with just six years existence could eradicate a championship-proven one.
It was, essentially, the ultimate test for the Magic to assess whether they were contenders or pretenders.
When the two Eastern Conference powerhouses stepped on the court for Game 1 at the Orlando Arena, emotions were running high and some excess apprehension circled around the players and fans.
After three-and-a-half competitive quarters, Game 1 would come down to the final minutes and more specifically, one monumental play.
Scottie Pippen’s go-ahead dunk with 40 seconds remaining off a perfectly designed alley-oop toss from Toni Kukoc was followed by a seemingly damaging Orlando turnover.
Over the previous couple of days, there had been some astonishing playoff endings: Reggie Miller miraculously scored eight points in the final 18 seconds to guide Indiana to a Game 1 victory over New York and the Houston Rockets extraordinarily erased a daunting fourth-quarter deficit in Game 5 to eliminate the Utah Jazz in the First Round.
As a result, it seemed unimaginable that something arguably even more extraordinary could transpire in the Magic-Bulls series.
Well, it did.
Forced to be excessively aggressive off the inbound, Nick Anderson was dealt the task of defending Jordan up the floor.
Instead of fouling immediately, Anderson opted to chase MJ from behind and ultimately stripped the ball away. Penny Hardaway, subsequently, scooped up the loose ball, started a two-on-one fast break and found Horace Grant streaming to the basket for a thunderous go-ahead one-handed jam with 6.2 seconds left.
Jordan’s ill-advised pass to Pippen on Chicago’s next possession led to a decisive turnover and the Magic prevailed to take a 1-0 series lead.
Obviously disturbed by his disoriented performance, which included an 8-of-22 shooting stat line and two detrimental turnovers to end Game 1, Jordan decided to switch from his temporary jersey No. 45 to the more renowned No. 23 for Game 2.
Believe in superstition or not, MJ and his teammates seemed inspired by the number change as Chicago earned redemption in Game 2. While Shaquille O’Neal, Grant and Hardaway all enjoyed 20-plus point efforts, it was Jordan’s dominant 38-point performance that proved most meaningful as the Bulls evened up the series.
Having to contend with a raucous crowd at the United Center for Game 3, the Magic knew it would take a special performance to regain control of the series.
A few surprises and an unexpected hero would secure Orlando’s quest to go up 2-1. The Magic denied the Bulls from connecting on a basket in the final five minutes of the game; O’Neal buried several critical free throws (finished 8-of-10 from the line) and the infrequently relied upon reserve Brian Shaw created plays for others and scored nine significant points as Orlando won Game 3.
After the Bulls and Magic traded victories in Games 4 and 5 on their respective home floors, Orlando had a golden opportunity to close out heavily favored Chicago in Game 6 in the Windy City.
BJ Armstrong drilled a 3-pointer with 3:24 remaining in the game to put the Bulls ahead by eight and it seemed inevitable that both teams would head back to Orlando for a decisive Game 7.
But rather than accept defeat and focus exclusively on preparing for Game 7, the Magic zeroed in on playing a perfect final three minutes.
A hero in Game 1 for his implausible strip of MJ, Anderson elevated his play once again to be the ultimate conqueror of Game 6.
Anderson buried two colossal shots, including a 3-pointer and a go-ahead baseline jumper with 42.6 seconds left, and the Bulls didn’t score in the last three minutes as the Magic, in incredible fashion, went on a 14-0 run to eliminate the Bulls and advance to the conference finals.
Elated about their monumental victory, the Magic celebrated in the house that Jordan built by carrying Grant, who formerly played for the Bulls, on their shoulders and were ready to return to Central Florida to start prepping for their next opponent.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by Josh Cohen are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.
Follow Josh Cohen on Twitter here