Gold Standard | Classic Rivalry: The 1990s
By Brett Ballantini | Posted May 18, 2005
Editor’s note: In the final installment of a three-part series, Bulls.com turns back the hands of time to revisit the Bulls’ most heated rivalries. Part III: The 1990s. Read about the 1970s by clicking here now and remember the 1980s here.
For Bulls fans, the bridge between the 1980s and 1990s is the unforgettable 1991 NBA Finals, when, somewhere in the second half of Game 5 versus the Los Angeles Lakers, father turned to son, daughter to mother, and Bulls fan to Bulls fan, all asking, in genuine bewilderment:
“Can this really be happening? Are we about to win an NBA title?”
Yes, they were. And in an extraordinary Christmas, birthday, and first day of summer all rolled into one, the Bulls would deliver five more titles before the decade was ended.
Such success, after the near-misses of the early-to-mid 1970s and the frustrating, two-steps-forward, one-step-back of the late 1980s, put an entirely different spin on Chicago’s rivalries for the 1990s. Particularly when it came to winning in the playoffs, the Bulls had a stretch of success not seen before or since.
Chicago’s primary Eastern Conference rivals, the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers, simply didn’t match up. In the 1990s, the Bulls were 27-15 versus Indiana and 23-15 versus New York. In the playoffs, Chicago beat the two clubs in five of six series, for a combined 20-13 record. There would be no countering the weapons the Bulls placed on the floor, although it didn’t stop Indiana and New York from trying.
Arguably, New York proved to be the more worthy adversary. The decade began with a first-round, throwaway, 3-0 Bulls sweep versus a John McLeod Knicks club. But, from the time former Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach Pat Riley landed in the Big Apple in 1991, the Knicks asserted themselves as a true threat to Chicago’s highly anticipated championship run.
While Riley kept the slick hairstyle and Armani suits of his L.A. days, once in Gotham he changed his playing strategy to better contrast that of the Bulls. Gone were his run-and-gun Showtime Lakers, and in came the black-and-blue Knicks, the bruising spawn of the Detroit Piston Bad Boys of the late 1980s.
Riley’s resurfacing in New York, at a time when Chicago had just vanquished one rugby foe in the Pistons, certainly spiked the Bulls’ Advil consumption. While the road to future titles would always run through Chicago, it would be filled with plenty of potholes, courtesy of Riley lunchpailers like Charles Oakley, John Starks, and Anthony Mason.
“I wanted hungry guys who were willing to subvert their egos to win,” says Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat. “I needed them to trust me, and my promise was I would deliver them to prominence. We never quite made it as far as I wanted because of Chicago, but that was the deal I made with my guys, and it worked pretty well for several years.”
In fact, Riley’s motivational work was so effective that the underdog Knicks actually won the first playoff game between the two teams, 94-89, in the 1992 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The series was a back-and-forth affair, the first of three straight postseason matchups that would last at least six games.
“We didn’t really like them,” says Patrick Ewing, the star of those Knicks teams and now an assistant with the Houston Rockets. “They were in our way, and we wanted to get past them and win a championship. They had had enough success already, in our minds. People might not have liked it, but we were willing to do anything to get there.”
Unlike the Bad Boy Pistons, who did succeed to the tune of two championships, the Knicks failed to win a title in the 1990s, even in the two seasons the Bulls were Michael Jordanless. One key difference between Detroit and New York was that Detroit’s bruisers were able—if not willing—to play an uptempo game. Their backcourt of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, as well as super sixth man Vinnie Johnson, could set fire to the nets.
Riley actually further “perfected” Bad Boys play by grinding the game to a slower pace than ever. It may have been a precursor to the physical play that’s dominated the NBA for the last decade or so, but it made for painful games to watch—and play.
“Those weren’t the most fun games to play, no,” says former Bulls center Bill Cartwright, now an assistant with the New Jersey Nets. “We had just gotten done with all of Detroit’s physical play, and now here comes a team that wanted to claw and scratch at you even more.”
And yet, merely the fact that the Bulls were defending champs by the time Riley’s crew came to prominence made a big difference. “With Detroit, they were the champs, they had the success, and you were never entirely sure that you had what it took to get past them,” says former Bulls guard, now Chicago GM, John Paxson. “With the Knicks, we had the upper hand. They had to knock us off. And we were confident, to a man, that no team like that was going to push us out of the way.”
Two of the five postseason series between New York and Chicago stand out prominently. The first was the Eastern Conference Finals in 1993, when New York held the home-court advantage and won the first two games in the series, threatening Chicago’s shot at a “threepeat.” In those first two games, Michael Jordan shot 22-of-59, and the media furor over a late-night gambling trip to Atlantic City before Game 2 would blow up enough to eventually drive him from the game for almost two seasons.
(Tom Cruze/Chicago Sun-Times)
The Bulls bounced back to win the next two in Chicago: Game 4 featured a 54-point outburst from Jordan, and while he added a triple-double (29 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds) in Game 5, that contest was marked by Scottie Pippen’s four successive blocks of 6’10” Charles Smith’s layup attempts in the waning seconds. The Bulls would complete a “staggered sweep” at the United Center in Game 6.
The next year—without a then retired Jordan—marked the lowest point of the Bulls-Knicks rivalry, from Chicago’s standpoint. After an unbelievable 55-win season that saw Pippen’s all-around play and Phil Jackson’s mentoring step to the fore, the Bulls suffered two setbacks in one semifinal series. The first came at home in Game 3, with the Bulls already down two games to none.
In what would become the “1.8” game, Pippen famously and inexcusably opted out of the game and sat on the bench after Jackson designed a play for rookie Toni Kukoc to take the last shot—a three-pointer which he nailed for the buzzer-beating win. Pippen’s reputation was immeasurably damaged with both Bulls fans and teammates alike.
Nonetheless, the Bulls continued to fight through the series and found themselves leading near the end of Game 7 in New York when Pippen was whistled for a phantom foul by veteran referee Hue Hollins, giving Knicks guard Hubert Davis two free throws and reversing the course of the game. Although the call later was famously mocked by referee supervisor Darrell Garretson, Chicago’s shot at a fourth straight title was dashed.
In the later 1990s, the Knicks faded, losing one gritty, physical series in five games versus the Bulls in 1996. By then, Chicago’s most prominent rival was Indiana, who had slipped into the Central Division favorite’s role in the absence of Jordan.
The Pacers, chronically overlooked in comparison to the star-studded Bulls, had been swallowed up in the endless hoopla over the Bulls making their “Last Dance” together as a team. Reggie Miller went so far as to protest that the Bulls considered the Pacers a “speed bump” on their way to a sixth title.
Of course, Miller and the Pacers had let their golden opportunity slip away by failing to make the Finals in 1994, when Jordan was on a minor league baseball diamond, learning to hit curveballs. But the resilient squad, helmed by onetime Boston Celtics postseason ace Larry Bird, appeared to be every bit Chicago’s equal.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBA Photos)
And that’s how the series played out. It was ugly, with a continuous stream of he-said, he-said poor mouthing over foul calls. But, discounting Chicago’s Game 5 blowout of Indiana (106-87 at the United Center), the series was decided by an average of four points per game.
Game 6 was particularly controversial. Jordan tripped with 2.6 seconds left, but no foul was called. And worse, Bulls nemesis Hollins whistled Pippen for an illegal defense with less than two minutes to go, an unheard of call even in the closing minutes of a regular season game.
“We were upset at the way the Bulls were treating us,” says current Nets guard Travis Best, whose four points in the last half-minute iced Game 6 for Indiana. “They had every call go their way for how many years, and suddenly they were complaining about a few calls that didn’t? It was easier for them to argue with the refs than it was to give us credit for playing them hard, and we didn’t appreciate that.”
In Game 7, the Bulls came out nervous, belying the fact that, for all their postseason triumphs, they had faced only two prior elimination games in their championship era. Bulls fans and players alike were uncommonly quiet at the United Center, where there was apprehension in the air. The Pacers met that silence with aggression, springing to a 20-7 lead.
The game was tied at 79, with five minutes remaining, when Chicago surged forward for the win. By the end, the rival might have been new, but the result was typical for the Bulls: Jordan shot poorly but finished with 28 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, and two steals; Pippen added 17 points and 12 rebounds; and Kukoc was the unsung hero, scoring 21 on 7-of-11 shooting. The Bulls would go on to win in the Finals and complete their second “threepeat,” but only after their most difficult Conference Final yet.
The Bulls, a team born in 1966, came of age quickly. Their struggle to win the big games as they grew up was painful for both players and fans alike. But the same team that had been so vulnerable in its youth finally did break through to prominence, in a most dominating fashion. It was New York and Indiana’s sorry destiny as 1990s rivals to have to break through against that backdrop of utter dominance.
A Matter-of-Fact Back-to-Back
It would be remiss not to mention the Utah Jazz in any discussion of Chicago Bulls rivals of the 1990s, even if, as a Western Conference team, Utah wasn’t a “traditional” rival. The Jazz gave the Bulls arguably their two toughest NBA Finals series, and were the only duplicate Western Finalist in Chicago’s entire six-year run of Championships.
The Bulls were 10-9 in the regular season versus Utah in the 1990s, and the two teams played a somewhat historic, if forgotten, regular season game on January 6, 1997. The contest, pitting the 28-4 Bulls versus the 23-8 Jazz, was second only to a Milwaukee Bucks versus Los Angeles Lakers game in 1972 for the highest combined winning percentage game in NBA regular season history. The Bulls won that one, 102-89 at the United Center, and would go on to finish 69-13 on the season.
In the back-to-back NBA Finals, four battles stand out. The first was Michael Jordan’s “flu game” in Utah in 1997. The Jazz were on the verge of completely turning the series in their favor by sweeping the middle three games at home, and had the added “advantage” of a gravely ill Jordan on the court. All Jordan contributed from the sick bay was a 38-point, 44-minute effort that defied even the loftiest expectations.
The clinching game came two days later at the United Center, extending the incredible emotion of Game 5 with a John Paxson-esque winning shot by Steve Kerr in the final minute. “In our last timeout, I was sitting down, watching Mike,” Kerr says. “He just sat there for awhile, and then he said to me, ‘Be ready. Stockton’s coming to me.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll make it.’”
A year later, the NBA Finals casts were the same, but this time Utah held home-court advantage. On top of that, Utah had 10 days of rest before the series, while the Bulls barely paused for breath after their seven-game epic against the Indiana Pacers. Improbably, after five titles in seven years, the Bulls were underdogs.
After splitting two games in Salt Lake City, the Bulls returned home and dealt a defeat of historic proportions to the Jazz. The 96-54 thrashing set NBA records for biggest margin of victory in a playoff game, fewest points allowed in a playoff game … and fewest points allowed in an NBA game in the post-shot-clock era.
“I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing when I looked over the box score afterwards,” Utah coach Jerry Sloan says. “It was the most embarrassing game I’ve ever been involved in.”
After an uncharacteristic miss on a last-second attempt by Jordan ended Game 5 and all hopes of a title clinched at home, the stage was set for one of the best finishes to a Finals series ever.
Utah, the game seemingly in hand, leading by three with less than a minute left, surrendered a layup to Jordan after his full-court drive; on the next possession, Jordan stripped Karl Malone of the ball and without calling a timeout, walked the ball up court and swished the game-winner with 5.2 seconds remaining.
It may not have been a rival in the traditional sense, but Utah was a better foil for the 1990s Bulls than any other, more familiar, team.