1992-93 Chicago Bulls: Three the hard way

By Brett Ballantini | 05.31.2013

With the distance of two decades and the permanence of a pair of Chicago Bulls three-peats logged in the history books, it might seem like the team’s third title was a foregone conclusion.

1992-93 Chicago Bulls: Back-to-back champions

But the road to becoming just the third team in NBA history to win three straight titles was incredibly long and bumpy, and ultimately helped to push basketball’s brightest star into a premature retirement.

Back on June 16, 1992, spirits were sky-high after a second straight title (and the first clinched at Chicago Stadium) and a virtual cruise to 82 wins (including a 67-15 mark in the regular season). At that annual rite of a summer celebration in Grant Park, reticent center Bill Cartwright made a promise: “We will be back!” Scottie Pippen took it a step further: “Let’s go for a three-peat!” And self-deprecating center Will Perdue serenaded hundreds of thousands of ravenous fans in verse:

The first time was neat.
The second time was one heck of a feat.
This time I had one hell of a seat.
The third time will be oh-so-sweet.

But Chicago’s central stars, Michael Jordan and Pippen, would leave Grant Park to embark on a mission with 1992’s Team USA Olympic “Dream Team,” ensuring they’d play basketball nearly non-stop for 21 straight months before potentially having the chance to defend their NBA title with the Bulls come the following June. On the other side of the velvet rope two other starters, Cartwright and guard John Paxson, had looming offseason knee surgeries on the horizon.

Scottie Pippen and John Starks

The Bulls easily rolled through the first two rounds of the playoffs only to meet up with the New York Knicks, who loved to try to intimidate opponents with rough play. After dropping the first two games in New York, Chicago stormed back to win four straight to capture its third consecutive Eastern Conference title and earn a ticket to Phoenix to meet the Suns in the 1993 NBA Finals.
(Jonathan Daniel/NBAE/Getty Images)

There were concerns outside of Chicago, beyond the Barcelona Games or hospital recovery rooms. Pat Riley’s New York Knicks were on the rise as the bruising spawn of the Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys, a club freshly vanquished by Chicago. Charles Barkley took his All-NBA game from Philadelphia to a rising power out west, Phoenix, turning the Suns into a Finals favorite. And the Cleveland Cavaliers, a Central Division rival who had their run to a Finals berth short-circuited by MJ and the Bulls a few seasons earlier, lurked vengefully. Even Jordan and Pippen’s Dream Team teammate, Magic Johnson, issued ominous words: “If [the Bulls] thought winning two in a row was hard, they’ll find out that winning three in a row will be the hardest thing they ever do.”

Before the first tip of the 1992-93 season, dissention had distracted the reigning champs. Coach Phil Jackson noted the fatigue felt by gold medalists Jordan and Pippen and eased up on the pair in training camp, evoking some ire from overlooked third wheel, Horace Grant. As it happened, the rest did only modest good for the two stars, as MJ would battle arch and wrist injuries all season, while Pippen was hobbled by an ankle ailment. Jackson also had instructed his club to tone down its intensity on defense in order to better pace itself for the 82-game season, a plan shot down early by Jordan himself, who sensed the downshift was doing more harm than good.

The two repaired veterans, Paxson and Cartwright, were faced with their own struggles. Paxson lost his starting job to B.J. Armstrong, who fit in better with the attacking defense piloted by assistant coach Johnny Bach. (Armstrong also would have a splashy debut offensively as a starter, leading the NBA with .453 shooting from the arc and an astounding .512 in the postseason.) Cartwright, meanwhile, struggled to be an effective starter while logging less than 20 mpg and being hampered by a sore back that sidelined him for 18 games in February.

Still, the Bulls got off to a 9-2 start and stood at 35-17 at the All-Star break, when Jordan and Pippen finished 1-2 in fan voting to attest to the interstellar popularity of the Bulls. The team would go 22-8 in the second half to finish 57-25 overall, Chicago’s fourth straight 50-win season. As many as 57 wins was a somewhat miraculous accomplishment given the “monotony” Jordan consistently described the campaign as. In spite of his boredom, Jordan earned his seventh straight scoring title at 32.6 ppg, tying Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time streak.

Bulls huddle

Bulls Head Coach Phil Jackson understood it would be hard to keep his team motivated over another grueling 82-game season. At first Jackson strategically backed off his team in order to conserve their energy. However he later turned up the pressure to keep everyone mentally involved. Chicago went on to win the Central Division with a 57-25 record, third best in the league behind only New York (60 wins) and Phoenix (62 wins). (Brian Drake/NBAE/Getty Images)

Still, the season wasn’t as dominant as Bulls fans had become accustomed to, and worse, with Chicago losing three times in the season’s final five games, Riley’s Knicks surged ahead of the Bulls to finish at 60-22 and earn a crucial home-court advantage in the postseason.

“We knew the season was going to be a grind,” Jackson says. “No matter what approach we were taking, [going for a third title] was going to wear us down mentally and physically. We just did the best we could and took each day as its own.”

“It was hard,” Pippen recalls. “We had no way of knowing what that season was going to be like, especially for me and Michael, playing in the Olympics. It helped, to a certain degree, that we had already won two championships and knew how that could wear a team down, but really, nothing could prepare us for all the non-stop basketball.”

The sluggishness with which Chicago finished the season wasn’t evident in either of the first two postseason rounds, both sweeps for the Bulls, with the semis cinched in Game 4 by another Jordan buzzer-beater.

Then came the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals, a series that began at Madison Square Garden. New York may have had an additional advantage beyond home court, in that by upsetting the Bulls in the first game of their playoff series just one year earlier—at Chicago Stadium—the Knicks proved to be far from awed by the defending champions.

Opening at MSG proved doubly dangerous for the Bulls in the 1993 playoffs, as the Knicks matched the slowed Chicago’s offensive flow and utterly brutalized the team in true Bad Boys fashion. In two opening losses Jordan was particularly affected, shooting just 22-of-59 from the floor and being additionally hounded by the media’s discovery of his late-night jaunt to Atlantic City before Game 2 of the series. The Bulls wouldn’t need to sweep the rest of the series to survive, but their prospects were still dim: The Knicks hadn’t lost more than two straight games all season long.

Predictably enough, the Bulls returned serve by evening the series with two home wins. But the truly heroic game—perhaps the greatest of all in the 1992-93 season—came in Game 5’s 97-94 upset at the Garden. Jordan spun a triple-double of 29 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds, while Pippen proved a defensive hero late, blocking shots from New York’s Charles Smith twice and harassing the 6'10" forward into a couple air balls during a frenetic, classic set of missed, last-second layups.

A Game 6 win at home was almost an afterthought, as the Game 5 giveaway cut the heart out of New York. But Chicago’s next, and final, step toward joining the Minneapolis Lakers and Boston Celtics as the only three-peaters in NBA history (and the first in nearly three decades) would again begin on the road, in Phoenix, facing the league’s best club.

1993 NBA MVP Charles Barkley

Although 1993 NBA MVP Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns had earned home-court advantage by virtue of having a better regular season record than Chicago, the Bulls paid no attention as they took the first two games of the series on the road.
(Andrew Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

It seemed at first the Bulls might run the table toward their third straight title; after winning four straight to vanquish the Knicks, Chicago took the first two games of the NBA Finals in Phoenix—a feat never before accomplished by a visiting team. With the next three games in Chicago, the Bulls seemed a lock to take at least two and celebrate a second straight NBA Championship (and 3rd overall) on their home floor.

But Phoenix had other ideas, outlasting the Bulls through the three overtimes of Game 3, 129-121, and staving off elimination in Game 5 with a 108-98 triumph. After authoring a 55-point outburst that cruised the Bulls to a win in Game 4 and a 3-1 series lead, Jordan told his teammates he hadn’t even packed for Phoenix and wouldn’t be going with them if the Bulls lost their next game; in the aftermath of a Game 5 loss and Barkley’s celestial conversations (“I believe it’s our destiny to win a World Championship … We didn’t care we were down 3-1. God wants us to win a World Championship; I talked to him the other night.”), MJ changed his plans.

Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan

Bruised but undaunted, Barkley and the Suns beat the Bulls in triple-overtime (129-121) in Game 3 in Chicago. Jordan scored 55 points to lead Chicago to victory in Game 4 (111-105) to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. But the Suns bounced back to win Game 5 (108-98) at the Chicago Stadium to send the series back to Phoenix.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

“We never lost our faith,” Pippen says. “Michael got right on the plane to Phoenix—after warning everybody he wasn’t going to be there, remember—and just shouted out, with his cigar, ‘Hello, World Champs!’ He had the faith, and that helped everyone on the team to have the faith.”

“There were a number of great leaders on the team, with veteran players and a coaching staff second to none,” Paxson says. “But so much of who we were as a team flowed from Michael Jordan. He set the tone and focus right away in what should have been a really difficult situation.”

Short of Jordan’s final shot with the Bulls, icing their sixth title in 1998, there’s no more iconic Finals moment for the Bulls than Paxson’s game-winning trey against Phoenix in Game 6. What set the moment up was Chicago’s cool nerves in the face of a Game 7, as well as Phoenix’s fold under pressure.

With less than a minute remaining and the Bulls down 98-94, Jordan rebounded a Suns miss and essentially drove the floor unimpeded for a layup. On the ensuing Phoenix possession, Chicago turned up the defensive pressure, forcing Suns swingman Dan Majerle into a long air ball as the shot clock ran out. It was the sixth miss in Phoenix’s last seven shot attempts, and with 14.1 seconds left, the Bulls would have a chance to tie the game—or win it.

Chicago’s last possession was a classic consummation of unselfish, clutch play. Jordan inbounded to Armstrong, who returned the ball to MJ to set up a final, one-on-one attempt. But Jordan passed out of full-court pressure to Pippen at the top of the key and tried to free himself, unsuccessfully. Pip drove into the lane but was blocked by Suns center Mark West, so the point forward dished to Grant, streaking to the rim for an open look. Grant, 0-of-5 in the game and leery of missing another attempt, passed up his look and threw the ball to Paxson at the arc. With Armstrong wide open on the right side of the arc and falling to the floor in joy with Trent Tucker on Chicago’s bench jumping in anticipatory exaltation as Paxson shot, the veteran stuck the long ball, putting the Bulls up, 99-98.

“Once Pax got the ball, I knew it was over,” Jordan says.

John Paxson

The consummate role player, John Paxson understood his value and never tried to do too much. In the 1991 Finals, Paxson shot a blazing .650 from the field to help push the Bulls to their first Championship. Two years later, Paxson nailed the game-winning three-point shot in Game 6 of the 1993 Finals to give the Bulls their third straight title.
(Andrew Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

“I just caught the ball and shot it, the way I’d always done,” Paxson says. “That was my approach even as a kid, when I would shoot like that in my driveway, thousands of times. I didn’t have to think about it. It was just a reaction.”

Phoenix’s panicked defense had left Paxson wide open for the entire possession, with Danny Ainge lurking 20 feet away from his man by the time Grant made his inside-out dish.

Suns coach Paul Westphal even tipped his hat, saying, “It’s a shot every kid dreams about. John Paxson got to live that dream out.”

Phoenix still had a final possession, but Grant stepped forward on a Kevin Johnson drive to the hoop and blocked his shot, preserving the win.

Jordan won a third straight Finals MVP award, in the process besting Hall of Famer Rick Barry’s Finals scoring record of 40.8 ppg in 1967 by averaging 41.0 points. The superstar acknowledged that completing the three-peat was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” But he also said he had no thoughts of leaving the game at the top, telling reporters “my love for [basketball] is still very strong.”

Of course, with the tragic murder of his father four weeks later, Jordan's mood changed. The day before training camp for the 1993-94 season was set to open in early October, Jordan announced his retirement from the NBA. That unexpected turn of events drove the Bulls into a period of transition that would last a couple of seasons, before a fully-recharged Jordan returned to the hardwood where he and Pippen, surrounded by almost a completely different cast, would embark on their second three-peat quest.