As ESPN's 'The Last Dance' comes to an end on Sunday, Sam Smith relives the final minute of the 1998 NBA Finals - a microcosm of Jordan's legendary career.
The Michael Jordan 1990s Bulls hagiography, The Last Dance, concludes Sunday on ESPN with the greatest minute of basketball in NBA history. Yes, yet another greatest declaration for Jordan and this wonderful documentary.
There have been many famous, infamous and exciting last moments in NBA history. What's special about this one—spoiler alert coming here; the Bulls win the game—is that the amazing career of the basketball player most regard as the game's greatest showed why he is the most special one in that Game 6 one minute of play for victory.
Not just with the famous Jordan winning jump shot and statuesque pose for the Salt Lake City audience and Bulls diaspora. But those last 59.2 game seconds served as something of a microcosm of Jordan's basketball career.
Thirteen legendary years went by just like that. Felt like a minute.
It was Jordan as cynosure. But with everything on display at the most crucial and pressure laden time to demonstrate the brilliant scoring, the imperturbable calm, peripatetic defense and preternatural intelligence and instincts. In a bare minute of play you could imagine and understand the 10 scoring championships, nine-time all-defensive first team and Defensive Player of the Year, five Most Valuable player awards, six championships and selected as an All-Star every year of his career including when he was injured.
Phil Jackson called Jordan's Game 6 to close out the so called Last Dance season the best critical game performance he's witnessed.
Michael Jordan sets up what is now known as The Last Shot.
Jordan always has produced the most artful choreography for the basketball ballet that was his Bulls career, both poetic and prosaic. Amazing in its richness and beauty, though also expected and predictable.
And so it's hardly surprising that Jordan would provide this dramatic ending to the greatest story that's being told again and likely will be told again and again. It's time to say goodnight to this 10-part epic.
Cut the theater lights and aim the spotlight. Michael Jordan's going to embrace the basketball world one last time (Yes, yes, there was Washington, but that was in another millennium). Cue the music and watch those special dance steps.
The 1998 Finals was supposed to be the Jazz' time.
The lyrical Last Dance season had taken a lot out of the Bulls, the Jazz earning the home court advantage for the Finals despite identical 62-20 records with a regular season 2-0 sweep of the Bulls. This time it was the Jazz with the long rest, dominating the Western Conference after a tough opening round series with Houston. Utah had 10 days off after sweeping the Lakers in the conference finals—Nick Van Exel's famous "one, two, three, Cancun" practice chant before Game 4 easing Utah's road—while the Bulls struggled through a rugged seven-game series with the Indiana Pacers. With Utah players home since winning in Los Angeles May 24, the Bulls closed out the Pacers May 31 and then headed across country for Salt Lake City.
This was going to take all Jordan had left. And for anyone else it wouldn't have been much. Jordan was culminating three and a half seasons since his return from baseball in 1995 never missing a game. Plus with Scottie Pippen's intransigence that led him to miss the first half of the season and Dennis Rodman's capriciousness that led him to want to miss the last half of the season, Jordan played more minutes in 1997-98 than in any of the six championship seasons. And at 35 years old in his 13th NBA season.
In addition, Pippen's back was acting up by then. He'd need a second back surgery after the season, essentially changing him from a star to a role playing facilitator. Pippen would crash late in the Finals, shooting two of 16 in Game 5 and sitting out much of Game 6 with the aching back.
Utah won Game 1, but the Bulls evened the series and then returned to Chicago to post the all-time Finals defensive game, holding Utah to 54 points in Game 3 in a 44-point victory. Karl Malone seemed to have no legs left and not even much will as the Bulls won their third straight. But carried by Malone and driven by Jerry Sloan, the Jazz produced one more great effort to bring the series back to Salt Lake City for Game 6. The Bulls had a small chance to win with less than a second left in Game 5. But Jordan's three-point attempt in a crowded space on the inbounds pass hit only air. It was back to Utah and the greatest minute ever played.
The Last Shot.
Utah led throughout a close first half with an officials' calls that would reignite conspiracies about Bulls' favoritism. Referees rejected a Howard Eisley three pointer as too late. Which it wasn't, meaning three fewer points for Utah's 49-45 halftime lead. Later, Ron Harper would get credit for a basket which did come late. Still, in basketball games there's always time to make up for a mistaken decision. Unless it's the last one. The Jazz couldn't recover from theirs to let Jordan shoot.
The Jazz maintained the deliberate pace of the game, a slower, physical slog with Jordan on the way to 44 minutes, 35 shots and 45 points. Toni Kukoc would be the only other Bulls player to score in double figures with 15 points on 14 shots. No other Bulls player attempted more than seven shots. Phil Jackson was stretching Jordan to even his limit. It seemed unlikely Pippen could play in a Game 7. The Bulls had to get this one.
Jordan scored quickly to start the fourth quarter with a pair of free throws and a basket on the way to 16 fourth quarter points. Then it was hand to hand, man to man combat. The Jazz matched every thrust and with 59.2 seconds left in the game, Jordan was on the free throw line shooting two in an attempt to tie the game.
So that's where it begins, pressure free throws down the stretch, everything and everyone stopped, everyone staring. Many great players don't like that moment and even avoid those last shots for that reason. Both Wilt and Shaq have demurred.
This was a periodic table of Jordan's career, his tungsten mentality, the steely belief and will for the gold standard of success.
Jordan swished both to tie the game at 83.
John Stockton dribbled the ball up and threw into the left post, a common Jazz action. Sloan's offense was unusual in the way the guards were primarily screeners, often on the baseline. Though not unexpected considering that Sloan was one of the most damaging screeners when he played guard for the first baby Bulls.
Although Tex Winter and his triple post triangle offense gets most of the strategic attention, the Bulls' defense through assistant Johnny Bach always was their stealth weapon. A particular feature of the triangle offense was the lack of play calls so opponents could not anticipate. Similarly, the Bulls defensive schemes employed unusual double teaming options with different players coming to double team depending on who was getting the ball and where.
Though this time there was a breakdown. Pippen went to double team as Malone was exchanging post position, which left Ron Harper caught in space. Harper shaded toward Antoine Carr in the post, which left Stockton open on the right wing for a three pointer and 86-83 Jazz lead with 41.9 seconds left. Utah's fan base is one of the loudest and often most vile in the NBA, and the arena was rocking. Fans were anticipating that sweet Game 7 revenge for 1997.
Sometimes you set up a defense early in the game. And sometimes the year before.
The Bulls clinched that Game 6 win and championship in 1997 when Jordan anticipated Stockton coming off Steve Kerr to double team. Jordan is seen in familiar video during a timeout predicting the Jazz reaction and telling Kerr to be ready.
And so Jordan and Jackson knew Jordan would have space. Stockton wouldn't leave Kerr this time. Pippen inbounded to Jordan above the three-point circle on the right side. Kerr was stationed in the right corner on the same side. So Jordan circled, hesitated and then drove past Bryon Russell for the layup to get the Bulls within 86-85. Stockton was too late because he clearly feared leaving Kerr.
There was the athletic burst from Jordan, the desire to make the play. But also the savvy to understand what had happened a year ago and how the Jazz' best defender would react.
Utah didn't call timeout and Stockton dribbled up slowly as the Jazz went into their offensive pattern.
Jeff Hornacek guarded by Jordan went to the left block with Malone on the right baseline. Hornacek turned to set the baseline screen. Hornacek then headed through to right wing where Stockton had caught the three-point ball the possession before. But this time Jordan came under along the baseline for the double team instead of over the top as Pippen did before. Malone appeared to be looking for the over the top help. He didn't see Jordan, who came from behind before Malone had a chance to turn to see Hornacek. Jordan hammered the ball away and retrieved it with 20 seconds remaining.
Jordan dribbles up the floor after stealing the ball from Karl Malone in the game's final moments.
Jordan took the ball to the middle of the floor and never looked for the timeout, thus not giving the Jazz a chance to set up their top rated defense. Again, Jordan was thinking ahead double, both to anticipate the Jazz' play, respond and then disdain the timeout so the Jazz could not prepare.
This time Jordan dribbled down the left side with Jazz players mismatched, Hornacek stuck on Kukoc. Jordan lined up Russell again with his dribble. Rodman came cutting across diagonally right to left, which cleared the lane. Jordan drove into the lane, his left hand flailing toward the hip of Russell, who stumbled as Jordan pulled up in a 60 to zero screech.
Jordan made the famous 17 footer from the top of the key with 5.2 seconds left with a little extra hold and pose for effect. Anyone for another statue?
Jordan was grimacing, trying to catch his breath as he returned to the bench. Stockton got a pretty good look at a three screening off Ron Harper. It hit the front rim and Jordan exulted, both arms raised high, a sixth title and sixth Finals MVP in a minute of pressure play, offensive excellence, defensive brilliance, intimidation, extraordinary intelligence and yet another celebration. It's the Michael Jordan story.