Paxson: Earning Jordan’s trust key to Bulls’ first title

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By Adam Fluck | 03.10.2011

As one version of the story goes, it was late in Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals at the Forum in Los Angeles as the Bulls, owners of a 3-1 series lead, held on to a one-point lead.

During a timeout, Phil Jackson addressed his team and asked Michael Jordan who was open. When Jordan, who regularly drew double teams, responded it was John Paxson, Jackson instructed Jordan to get him the ball.

“I don’t remember it quite that way and it wasn’t nearly as dramatic,” recalled Paxson. “But the thing that was pointed out was that Magic [Johnson] had been guarding me. Their defense, as a lot of teams did, overloaded on Michael. Phil was just making Michael aware that Magic was sagging off me to help double team Michael at times. I found myself open.”

The rest, as they say, is history, as Paxson drained several open shots and finished with 20 points on nine of 12 shooting and the Bulls claimed their first of six NBA championships.

“As a player, you pride yourself on being in those positions,” said Paxson. “Even though they were open shots, I had to knock them down. I was fortunate enough to do it.”

Aside from the obvious—helping the 1990-91 Bulls, who will reunite at the United Center for a halftime ceremony this Saturday, win the title—Jordan finding Paxson represented more than just that. More so, it was symbolic of a shift that set the Bulls up for their dynasty of the 1990s in that Jordan had finally come to trust his teammates, acknowledging that even he couldn’t win on his own.

Paxson and the 1991 Bulls

“The biggest hurdle that had to be overcome when Phil took the job was getting Michael to trust us because we could hold up our end of the bargain,” Paxson agreed. “It wasn’t just a one-man show. Michael knew that in his heart, but we still had to prove it. We needed to show Michael we could do that rather than just get his trust early on. But we did, as a group of individuals, show him that he could count on us.

“It didn’t happen that night; it happened over the course of several years,” added Paxson. “It was symbolic of what a team should be in that you don’t win in professional basketball with one individual. You win with a group playing together, one guy picking up where the other left off. Phil had professed it for so long and had us believing in the team. It was vindication in terms of what we wanted to be all about.”

As important as it was for Jordan’s teammates to earn his trust and respect, it was far from the only obstacle that the Bulls of that era faced. Another prominent block in the road came in the form of the Detroit Pistons, who won back-to-back NBA titles in the late 1980s and sent the Bulls home three postseasons in a row. But it wasn’t just the fact that the Bulls were getting beat—the Bad Boys had a knack for adding insult to injury.

“We had taken a beating from the Pistons,” said Paxson. “Losing is one thing, but we were getting beat up physically and mentally.”

In the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, Chicago fought Detroit to Game 7, but fell short. They were close and they knew it. So the team’s goal became to get home court advantage.

“We strived to have a better regular season record than the Pistons in ’91 because we felt we were close enough to beating them,” recalled Paxson. “Our young guys, [Scottie] Pippen and [Horace] Grant, were coming into their own, maturing more and more every night. Phil had us believing in the fact that we couldn’t fight the Pistons the way they fought us. We had to be the quicker team and go away from their pressure and antics. But first, we had to believe we could do that.”

With the 1990 loss still fresh in their minds, the Bulls were confident that if they held the home court advantage, it would be enough to win. They believed they were the better team and ultimately proved it on the court, winning the first three games of their 1991 Eastern Conference Finals series.

After taking Game 3 in Detroit, it was clear the Bulls had surpassed the Pistons and winning the series was inevitable. When Jordan spoke to the media and vented what surely was years of frustration, calling Detroit an unprofessional, classless team, his supporting cast agreed.

“We had to feel that way about them,” said Paxson, who added that the mental edge the Bulls had gained was as important as the physical one. “They were the Bad Boys and they had won doing it their way. We couldn’t talk prior to that because we hadn’t beaten them. So we kept our mouths shut, but we never appreciated the way they played. For a lot of them, they’d hold, grab, trip, kick and make an issue out of every play.”

Paxson added, “I’ve always said beating them was almost as good as winning the championship because we had really taken our lumps from them over the years.”

Close, but not quite. And when the Bulls completed the sweep with a Game 4 victory, the Pistons lived up to Jordan’s words and then some, as Isiah Thomas led his team off the court before the game was over without congratulating the Bulls.

“I don’t want to paint all the guys on that team in that light because guys like Joe Dumas were always very classy,” said Paxson. “There was a group of them that were very professional and handled themselves the right way. But they chose not to acknowledge us. I was on the bench at the end of the game when they did that. We all stood up because we thought they were coming by to shake hands.

“The most disappointing thing—and this is the most telling part—is the fact that their hill to climb was Boston,” Paxson continued. “When they beat Boston, I remember [Kevin] McHale being out on the court with them telling them, ‘Hey, you’ve beaten us. Now go out and win it.’ They had an example ahead of them and they chose not to look at that example. Even 20 years later, it’s still something that you think about and say that was not their finest moment. But it certainly was one of ours because we had done our talking on the floor.”

For the Bulls, it was time to head back home to Chicago and move on to the next challenge, Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles in the NBA Finals.

When things didn’t go as planned and the Bulls dropped Game 1 at the Stadium, Jackson realized that tweaking his strategy might be necessary. In a move that was also partially driven by Jordan picking up a couple fouls early, Jackson made the defensive adjustment of assigning Pippen to Johnson in Game 2. It was a move that proved to be extremely successful in slowing down the up-tempo Lakers.

“The thing you have to remember about Magic is he was playing the point guard position at 6-9,” said Paxson. “He rarely had someone of Scottie’s athleticism and length who could guard him 94 feet. Scottie picked Magic up in the backcourt on dead balls and made him work.

“Magic was good and he wasn’t going to turn it over a lot, but Scottie made him work to get the ball up the floor,” Paxson continued. “Then, once he made it to the frontcourt, he had a long, athletic guy on him to disrupt his passes into the post and around.

Paxson and the 1991 Bulls

“It allowed us to do some things,” Paxson added. “I got to stay home on Byron Scott. It allowed Bill Cartwright to battle with Vlade Divac. Horace was able to roam a little and find his way, while Michael, being off the ball, was able to gamble at times and get into the passing lanes. So while it may not have been in the original game plan, good coaches and good teams adjust. We found something that really disrupted their tempo.”

While Phil Jackson, now an 11-time champion as a head coach, has never gotten a great deal of credit for being a high-level basketball tactician—in part due to his typically talent-laden rosters—his decision to put Pippen on Magic paid off. But where he deserves the most credit, Paxson said, is for the implementation of the triangle offense, which no other team in the NBA had previously adopted.

“Phil instilled a system offense where everyone played together and the idea was to share the ball, move and read defenses,” said Paxson of Jackson, who was in just his second season as the Bulls head coach. “He also got criticized by people saying he would sit there during games and not do a whole lot. But, he talked during practice and he felt his time to teach was practice and that we needed to figure things out, at certain times, on our own during games.

“One of Phil’s greatest qualities was his calm demeanor for us because we needed to be able to relax in key situations,” Paxson added. “I don’t think any of us felt real pressure in those moments, because you could look at the sideline and there was a calm coach who believed in you and trusted we were going to do the right thing as a team.”

As Paxson and the 1990-91 Bulls prepare for celebration of the 20th anniversary of the organization’s first championship, he recalled scoring 155 points on Phoenix one night, then less than two weeks later, holding Cleveland to a mere five points in the first quarter. It was a team that dominated on both ends of the floor and never took a night off en route to the 60-win plateau for the first time.

“We had games where we were really in sync,” acknowledged Paxson. “It was a combination of our transition game, running the triangle and knocking down high percentage shots, as well as our defense being active and aggressive in getting deflections and steals and getting points off those.

“We had a very good, deep bench and we could score in a lot of different ways,” Paxson added. “We had two good shooters off the bench in B.J. Armstrong and Craig Hodges who came in and knocked down shots. We had some quality big men who filled the gaps for us. Scott Williams had a terrific year.”

It is often said that defense wins championships and Paxson is a firm believer that the 1990-91 Bulls are no exception to that rule.

“There is no question there is a component of that in every championship team,” said Paxson. “But you also have to be able to put the ball in the basket. The best part about that team is we showed we could share the ball on offense—even with a great player. We were very efficient in that sense and we could also stop people. Those kinds of things carried over into the other years. But that first title was absolutely special.”