Feb. 26, 1987: Bulls 128, New Jersey Nets 113

Michael Jordan

Jordan, the NBA’s top scorer (37.1 ppg) in 1986-87, was selected to the East All-Star Team and won his second slam dunk contest during All-Star weekend in Seattle.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

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Sam Smith at Bulls.com

By Sam Smith | 11.02.2011 | @SamSmithHoops

Comcast SportsNet will show the first of 15 Chicago Bulls classic games starting Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Bulls broadcasters Neil Funk and Stacey King will be joined by Bulls.com writer Sam Smith to provide pregame, postgame and between quarters commentary on each of the games, much of which will be almost as entertaining as the games, though with less perspiration.

Sam Smith will also provide commentary here on Bulls.com for each of the games, starting with the Feb. 26, 1987 game against the New Jersey Nets when Michael Jordan set the then Bulls franchise regular season scoring record with 58 points, breaking Chet Walker’s mark of 56 points. The previous spring in the playoffs against the Boston Celtics, Jordan set the overall franchise record with 63 points.

Feb. 26, 1987 | Bulls 128, New Jersey Nets 113

The Bulls still were not a very good team in 1986-87, finishing the season 40-42 in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. They played the Celtics again in the playoffs and again were swept, giving Michael Jordan a 1-9 playoff record in his first three years in the NBA.

Jordan was on his way to being special, if not a phenomenon. He’d won rookie of the year and was an All-Star in 1984-85. But he broke his foot early in the 1985-86 season and missed 64 games. He did return for the playoffs with the 30-52 Bulls, and had that amazing 63-point playoff game when Larry Bird said it was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” But the Celtics swept and much of the whispers around the NBA was it was a fresh legged Jordan who had an edge on players closing a long season, and still unable to win a playoff game.

Jordan would begin to prove routinely spectacular in the 1986-87 season, his first leading the league in scoring with the highest average in his career, 37.1 points per game. That was Doug Collins’ rookie season as coach and Jordan had famously assured Collins on opening night in New York he wouldn’t let Collins lose his first game. Jordan scored 50 points and the Bulls beat the Knicks. It would be the first of eight games of at least 50 points for Jordan that season, including a pair of 61-point efforts later that season after Jordan broke Walker’s mark.

The Bulls were 27-25 coming into that February game with a poor Nets team struggling through a 24-win season and last in the Eastern Conference. It was a Nets team with former Bull Orlando Woolridge, who was booed by Bulls fans, and the likes of starters Pearl Washington, Tony Brown and Albert King.

As we look back now, it brings a smile when you see the baby faced Jordan with all that hair, though we are glad John Paxson did away with that mustache. It was the era when the shorts were too short and the defense pretty nonexistent, for the Bulls and Jordan, as well. You saw Michael in this game playing off his man and plenty of free safety to get breakaway dunks. Of course, not that many of those Nets players needed guarding.

The Bulls also hadn’t quite become a phenomenon yet, so the old Stadium still wasn’t selling out and there were just over 14,000 reported for this game. It wasn’t that sophisticated a basketball crowd yet, either, as the emphasis was strictly on Jordan and the most enthusiasm the fans seemed to have was for Jordan dunking on the break after some of those steals. Though you could only develop so much enthusiasm for Charles Oakley’s fullcourt outlet passes, some of which didn’t go out of bounds. But Oakley did get 17 rebounds and seven assists in showing the impact he, as well, would have.

The league season-high going into that game was Dominique Wilkins’ 57 points scored earlier that season against the Bulls in a game Jordan had 41. Their scoring duels would be the best in that era.

The Bulls dominated the game against the Nets from the start, going up nine after one and 21 by halftime. After that, it would be just a matter of counting Jordan’s points, and the crowd would be urging Jordan to go for 60 as he asked out of the game with about three minutes remaining with the Bulls so far ahead.

It would not be the classic, dramatic Jordan scoring game, as Jordan scored almost half his points from the free throw line, hitting 26 of 27. He had 19 consecutive in the third quarter going for a league record 20th straight when he missed his only one of the game.

That was Collins’ rookie coaching season and you saw Jordan stationed often in the right corner in a simple flex offense Collins was running with no real coaching experience. Jordan simply used his amazingly quick first step to continually draw contact and get fouled. The Bulls really had no true point guard with Paxson bringing the ball up, though often having to turn his back to the defense to dribble. But his shot was true, and early in the game on the way to 16 points, Paxson was the leading scorer for the Bulls.

Collins used Sedale Threatt, Brad Sellers, Ben Poquette and Mike Brown off the bench and though widely criticized in that era, Sellers showed an excellent shot and was the best of the bench players. Sellers, many forget, was a Big 10 rebounding force and in the second quarter had some big rebounds and good outlets to Jordan, one for a fast break slam. Jordan would finish the first half with a quiet 25, so you sensed a big night was ahead. Nets coach Dave Wohl apparently thought so as well and got himself ejected.

After halftime, Jordan hit his 42nd point with a breakaway slam dunk that got the crowd excited and by today’s standards there was very little defense. The Nets did have a star in Buck Williams, but little else. Future NBA referee Leon Wood was coming off the bench for them.

The Nets guards were truly poor defenders with the once good Ray Williams at the end of his career and rookie Washington showing why he’d be a bust. The Nets late would go to slow Kevin McKenna on Jordan and it simply wasn’t fair. McKenna wasn’t even getting help as the Bulls scored 128 points without making a three pointer and attempting just three in the game. Yes, it was a very different era. Jordan made some nice moves to get that record breaking basket, and then with just under three minutes remaining, left the game.

Afterwards, he joined then color commentator Johnny Kerr for a postgame interview and talked of that very elusive championship that would take another four years. But there were a lot more highlights like the ones from that evening that come before then.