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By Adam Fluck | 03.11.2011
Before Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Chicago Bulls would win their first NBA championship in 1991, there was a major hurdle they had to overcome in the form of the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons had claimed back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. Along the way, they knocked the Bulls out of the postseason three years in a row. The 1990 Eastern Conference Finals was the toughest for the Bulls to swallow. The Bulls had reached a point where they knew they could compete and potentially beat Detroit, but the Pistons held home court advantage. Making matters worse, in the decisive Game 7, Pippen suffered from a severe migraine headache that kept him out of the action.
“It was a tough season for me,” Pippen acknowledged. “We had done so well and felt like we were prepared to beat the Pistons in 1990. Game 7 was very disappointing for me because I wasn’t able to perform at the level I needed to perform for the team to be successful. Although I went out and tried, it was not what I needed to be able to beat the best team in the NBA. But there was still light at the end of the tunnel. I was a young player and I knew things happen for a reason. Maybe I wasn’t as prepared physically, as well as mentally, to face that obstacle. I didn’t face it very well in 1990. It took me another year.”
When the 1990-91 season began, Pippen and the Bulls took the court with a specific goal in mind—win more games than the Pistons in the regular season and achieve home court advantage in the postseason.
Not only did they do that, hitting the 60-win mark for the first time in the franchise’s history, but on Feb. 7, 1991, they accomplished something they hadn’t done in three years—win a game in Detroit.
“It was a pivotal moment for the team,” said Pippen of the victory. “[Detroit] was an obstacle that we hadn’t been able to get over in terms of beating them in their own building. We felt like we had made huge progress in terms of closing the gap. The maturity factor, the familiarity, and getting Michael to the point where he believed in his teammates were all obstacles that we had to overcome.”
By the time the 1991 postseason came around, the Bulls were clicking on all cylinders and their newfound confidence to beat the Pistons, whether it was in Chicago and Detroit, was put to the test. The Bulls responded by promptly winning the first three games of their Eastern Conference Finals series. Following Chicago’s Game 3 win in Detroit, Jordan went off to the media about the Pistons, labeling them as an unprofessional, classless team. When the Pistons walked off the court before time expired in Chicago’s Game 4 series clinching victory without congratulating or acknowledging the Bulls, it only backed up his words.
“We always felt that way about them,” said Pippen. “There was no love on that side of the line. We knew they would pull out all the stops to try and beat us, whether it was physically or mentally. We were ready for the challenge. What they did at the end of that series in 1991 by walking off the court, as players, we expected it. You didn’t see any players on our team trying to acknowledge them as they walked by. We knew they were a classless team with a classless leader in Isiah [Thomas]. We knew that they were following their leader.”
For Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls, finally defeating their nemesis, a team that once regularly broke them down and sent them home in defeat, was a monumental step forward. Several players felt that beating the Pistons was like winning the championship. But the Bulls’ job wasn’t finished yet.
Waiting in the wings for Chicago was Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. Again, the Bulls had home court advantage, but it didn’t work in their favor, as the Lakers stole Game 1 at the Chicago Stadium.
Following the game, Jordan claimed that the Bulls would win out in spite of the loss. Pippen, though he didn’t say it publically at the time, agreed.
“We all sort of felt that way,” said Pippen. “That first game, we were a little nervous. We relied on our fans a little too much, which we had done a lot in the regular season and postseason, to carry us. The Lakers were a smart, mature team. They came in, took the crowd out of the game and played at their own pace. But we knew what we had to do as a team and that was speed the game up. We had to play harder on the defensive end, cause a little more havoc and limit our own mistakes.”
In Game 2, Phil Jackson made a decision that changed the trajectory of the series. Jackson had originally assigned Jordan to guard Johnson, but Jordan had gotten in early foul trouble and a switch was made. In an effort to match up with Johnson’s remarkable size and quickness, Pippen took over the responsibly of defending the 6-9 point guard.
“My mentality when guarding a point guard was always to try and disrupt him and take them out of the offense,” said Pippen of the matchup. “Whether it was Magic, or Michael, John Paxson or B.J. Armstrong in practice, I just tried to defend the ball and take the team away from what they were trying to accomplish.
“When I got the call to guard Magic, I knew that I could cause him a lot of problems,” added Pippen. “I had watched Magic my whole career, even before my career, and so I knew the style of player that he was and I knew what I had to do to prohibit him from being as effective on the basketball court as he had been throughout his career.”
Also in Game 2 came one of Jordan’s most iconic moments, his switch hand lay up as he want up with his right hand and finished with his left late in the game with the Bulls enjoying a large lead.
“The hang time, the creativity, the ability to switch to his left hand—he was a guy who never really had a great left hand—but it was spectacular,” recalled Pippen. “It was one of those shots that was almost like a slam dunk in that it took the momentum away from the Lakers. It took the gas out of them. Very seldom do you see that with a layup. It sort of broke them down as a team. I think they realized at that point that our youth and greatness was going to be tough.”
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Between Jordan’s offensive brilliance and Pippen’s defense, the Bulls got the win in Game 2 to even the series as it shifted to the West Coast. In Game 3, Pippen fouled out and Vlade Divac converted a three-point play as the Lakers went up two late in the game. Jordan countered, taking the ball the length of the court and connecting on an improbable shot over Divac with 3.4 seconds remaining to force overtime. It was redemption for Jordan, who had missed a potential game-winner in Game 1, as the Bulls dominated the extra session for a 104-96 win and 2-1 series lead.
In Game 4, the Bulls cruised to a 97-82 victory behind Jordan’s 28 points and 13 assists, setting up the clincher.
In the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Bulls were up in the fourth quarter but their lead was dwindling. The Lakers defense was double-teaming Jordan, which opened the door for John Paxson.
Paxson hit open jumper after open jumper, scoring 10 points in the last four minutes and finishing with 20 in the game as the Bulls pulled away to a 108-101 victory and their first championship.
“Being a player who relies on getting open and making shots, it was sort of his time,” said Pippen of Paxson. “The Lakers had sort of disrespected us as a team in terms of being able to move the basketball and find the open man. They just wanted to get the ball out of Michael’s hands.
“John stepped up and played the role we knew he was capable of playing,” Pippen continued. "And he played it perfectly. He gave us that comfort that we needed as a team. It was a great moment for John because he was one of those forgotten soldiers on our team. He wasn’t quite the point guard; he was sort of a shooting guard who didn’t get a lot of shots that he should have gotten.”
Pippen was pretty good in Game 5 too, turning in a line of 32 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and five steals, as the Bulls closed out the 1991 postseason with an overall record of 15-2.
It was the Bulls’ time and they knew it. While the 1980s had been the years of the Celtics, Lakers and Pistons, the 1990s would belong to Chicago.
“Everyone was saying that Michael probably would never win a championship because of his style of play,” said Pippen. “But all that came to a halt. He came full circle as a player and appreciated his teammates and the offense that we were in. When it got to the point where everything was more fluid, we felt very good about the future of the Chicago Bulls.”
As Pippen mentioned, in part, that future was bright because Jordan had come to trust his teammates, something that took years to develop.
“He watched us grow as players after coming in as rookies under him,” said Pippen of Jordan. “I’m sure for him to see us mature and develop as his career moved forward was a relief, as it was for us as well. We felt like we had come together and that we were on a course to greatness.”
As he looks back on the championship season from 20 years ago which will be celebrated during halftime on March 12, Pippen acknowledges that the growing pains he and his teammates endured only made them stronger and better prepared for what was to come.
“It was a huge season for me in terms of my maturity,” said Pippen of the 1990-91 campaign. “I felt that the game had come full circle and I was physically and mentally ready for any challenge. From all the ups and downs of facing the Pistons, I had finally set myself up to be a complete NBA player.”
After a slow start—the Bulls opened the 1990-91 season 0-3—Chicago proved they were among the NBA’s elite following the All-Star break, winning 20 of 21 games. During that stretch, Pippen recorded a career-high 43 points on Feb. 23 in a win over the Charlotte Hornets. Pippen made 16 of 17 shots and became the first player to score 40 points playing with Jordan. Though Pippen doesn’t remember many specifics about that particular game, he credited the work done in the offseason for his success that year.
“When you suffer a few loses in the playoffs, it forces you back into the gym early on,” said Pippen. “Our strength and conditioning coaches, Al Vermeil and Erik Helland, really put us to work throughout the summer and we spent a lot of time in Chicago during the offseason. We were always trying to get stronger and become better players. But it’s not until your body matures that you are able to turn that corner."
And as good as the Bulls were offensively, Pippen said it was the team’s defense that allowed it to go 29-7 after the All-Star break.
“We were able to stop teams,” said Pippen. “That is what took us to another level. Offensively, we still struggled here and there even though Michael was very dominant. Our defense allowed us to overcome any mistakes that we made on the offensive end, whether it was a bad shot or a turnover.”
The versatility of the 1990-91 Bulls was on display as much as ever in December. On Dec. 4 at the Chicago Stadium, the Bulls, who averaged 110 points per game that season, put 155 on the board in a win over the Phoenix Suns. It set a franchise record for scoring in a regulation game and marked the second time in five games that they hit the 150-point mark.
“We had gotten very comfortable with Tex Winter’s triangle offense,” said Pippen. “We had a lot of doubt about the offense when it was first implemented and it took us awhile to get the hang of it. It was a bit of a struggle. But we finally got it, and it became one of the best tools in basketball.”
Eleven days later, the Bulls showed they could dominate on the other side of the ball too when they hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers and opened the game with a 36-5 first quarter. It was testament to how many different ways the Bulls could win.
“We knew the importance of playing defense,” said Pippen. “I won’t say scoring was easy, but teams were scoring a lot of points back in those days. If you didn’t defend, it was very difficult to win basketball games. Defense is something that you have to want to do. We had guys who wanted to play defense and wanted to win.
“We took on that challenge every day in practices too,” added Pippen. “They were always competitive because we pushed each other so that we got better on both sides of the basketball. Our defense was what we really hung our hats on. We probably spent as much time working on the defensive end as we did learning the triangle. It really paid off for us.”