Feb. 16, 1989 | Bulls 117, Milwaukee Bucks 116

Michael Jordan

After winning 50 games the previous season and the first playoff series since Jordan joined the Bulls in 1984-85, it appeared the Bulls were taking a step back in 1988-89. Playing the Bucks shortly after the All-Star break in 1989, the Bulls were going along at 27-20, the same pace as the previous season, but with mounting internal problems.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

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Sam Smith at Bulls.com

By Sam Smith | 11.09.2011 | @SamSmithHoops

Comcast SportsNet shows the second of 15 Chicago Bulls classic games on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Bulls broadcasters Neil Funk and Stacey King, along with Bulls.com writer Sam Smith, provide pregame, postgame and between quarters commentary on each of the games, much of which is almost as entertaining as the games, though with less perspiration.

Sam Smith will also provide commentary here on Bulls.com about each of the games. Though Wednesday’s game wasn’t a pivotal one, it was an exciting game featuring the best of Michael Jordan down the stretch in one of those iconic fourth quarter performances we have come to celebrate with the comforting voices of Jim Durham and Johnny “Red” Kerr. Jordan’s shot won the Feb. 16, 1989 game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the buzzer in a thrilling fourth quarter finish. It’s an especially entertaining regular season game between two relatively evenly matched teams trying to break through, and we know which one eventually did emerge.

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

We didn’t know it at the time—although most, including Michael Jordan, were demanding it— but the 1988-89 season effectively was the beginning of that run of six championships.

The Bulls acquired Bill Cartwright for Charles Oakley before the start of the 1988-89 season in a trade much condemned by Jordan. Eventually, Jordan would realize how much Cartwright meant in neutralizing the big centers in the Eastern Conference, like Patrick Ewing, James Edwards, Brad Daugherty and Robert Parish. The trade of Oakley opened up a starting position for Horace Grant to team with Scottie Pippen, who got his first start in the 1988 playoffs. Sam Vincent was promoted to start at point guard, though John Paxson would eventually outlast all of them and perhaps save two Bulls championships, in 1991 and 1993.

One of the remarkable quirks of the early Bulls title run was for how many years they tried to replace Paxson. And it was Paxson they eventually returned to in order to complete the team’s destiny, a tribute to Paxson’s amazing grit and determination. And a pretty good shot. They Bulls acquired Steve Colter, Sedale Threatt, Rory Sparrow, Elston Turner, Vincent, Craig Hodges and B.J. Armstrong, all to replace Paxson. But Paxson endured and the Bulls, despite themselves in some respects, were able to prosper.

The 1988-89 season was becoming a disappointing one for the Bulls, and eventually would become a turning point with the upset first round playoff win over the Cleveland Cavaliers with Jordan’s “The Shot,” but the firing of coach Doug Collins happened just weeks later.

After winning 50 games the previous season and the first playoff series since Jordan joined the Bulls in 1984-85, it appeared the Bulls were taking a step back. Playing the Bucks shortly after the All-Star break in 1989, the Bulls were going along at 27-20, the same pace as the previous season, but with mounting internal problems.

One of the biggest was the uncertain status of Collins, who despite having a major role in the Bulls’ resurgence, was embroiled in issues with management. Some of the problems went back to an earlier season game against the Bucks when Collins was ejected early in the game. General Manager Jerry Krause and Collins were at odds, as Krause, as he would do again and again, was the man who would say the right thing the wrong way. Like in 1997, when Krause said organizations win championships. Everyone knows they do. It’s not just one person, and many contribute to success. But the way Krause put things, it was interpreted to mean he was taking away from the players.

So it was after a December game that season. When the Bulls came back from a big early deficit to win, Krause was so excited about the depth of his coaching staff—which was terrific with Phil Jackson, Tex Winter and Johnny Bach, perhaps the greatest staff ever—Krause said, somewhat indelicately, if Collins got hit by a bus or something, the Bulls would carry on. He was trying to compliment the staff. Instead, it came off to observers, but mostly to Collins, that Krause was manipulating to move out Collins. Particularly since Jackson took over the coaching that night. Because Collins was a young coach in his first job, the Bulls allowed him to hire just one assistant, Bach, while the team hired Winter and Jackson. Generally, coaches choose all their assistants. So Collins was insecure about the situation as a young coach, and that night only exacerbated the tensions.

Going into that February game with the Bucks, the Bulls were four games behind a very good Milwaukee team with Jack Sikma, Paul Pressey, Terry Cummings, Jay Humphries and Larry Krystowiak, the latter before he was hurt seriously with a knee injury. Krsykowiak would outquick the Bulls to the ball all game. The Bucks were deeper and more experienced—overall a better team—though Jordan tended to even these things out some.

Michael Jordan

Early on, it was somewhat ominous for the Bucks, already missing with injuries reserve high scorer Ricky Pierce and All-Star Sidney Moncrief. Injuries would haunt that Bucks team, coached by Del Harris throughout the 1980s.

Reserve forward Fred Roberts took an elbow from Cartwright in the first quarter and went out of the game with a concussion after several uncomfortable minutes on the floor. Cartwright’s use of his elbows high to rebound became an issue in that era with several players, including Hakeem Olajuwon, knocked out by Cartwright elbows. Several teams openly demanded a suspension for Cartwright. But the point was made as well: Venture near at your own risk. The elbows were hardly intentional, but they were a further evidence of the subtle impact Cartwright would have. It was evident when the reserves came in and Milwaukee took advantage of Brad Sellers and Dave Corzine on the inside.

A word here about Sellers, who became a target for frustrated fans in that era. I’ve always felt he was misused and could have had a great impact. He was slight, though seven feet tall, and in that era, if you were that size, you were sentenced to the inside. Really, Sellers was years ahead of his time and would have flourished in this era. And so was Krause’s view of that position and NBA versatility. Too bad he never could persuade his coaches. Sellers was one of the team’s best shooters and shot blockers, but they always insisted on playing him against bigger, stronger players who would overpower him. He could have been a mismatch nightmare. And you’ll see in this game several sharp blocks, accurate shots and firm outlet passes. Again, Krause knew the right thing to do, but again, allowed himself to be misinterpreted. Articulation remains much underrated.

This game was a good example of how a player like Sellers could have been employed much better. Jack Sikma had a big game, especially shooting threes. Sikma was a tough cover for Cartwright because he stayed outside so much to shoot. Sikma wasn’t the kind of center who was going to attack the basket and overpower someone like Sellers. And, in the end, the Bulls would almost lose it, being unable to defend Sikma and using the less mobile Dave Corzine on him.

We were also in this game beginning to see the athletic development of Pippen. He was playing a bit of point forward, which would be expanded once Jackson became coach the following season. But you could see his spotty offense with an inconsistent shot—he hits the side of the backboard on one second half jumper—and inability to finish other than on the break. He does miss some wild ones down the stretch and for a time is replaced on offense by Hodges. But Pippen is there defensively and does convert a big time layup off an inbounds that gets the Bulls within a point with nine seconds remaining to help set up Jordan’s winner.

Although Collins mostly eschewed the triangle offense that Jackson later would embrace, there were elements to see like a clever back door in the second quarter. Although DePaul’s Cummings was a top player of the era, you also could see elements of why he never would be that great player as he preferred to shoot falling away so much. He did have foul trouble in this game that limited him.

The Bulls had recently picked up Craig Hodges in a trade with the Suns for Ed Nealy, another of those quiet Krause deals which would pay well. Hodges played some point off the bench, though hardly his position. But Milwaukee’s high/low inverted game with Sikma outside was causing the Bulls difficulties and after leading by 11, the Bucks went to halftime ahead 53-45.

Although we don’t see him in games, the Bulls had Hall of Fame towel waver Jack Haley that season and you can see Haley in the corner of your screen up off that bench. Enthusiasm is nice, though I’m not sure how much it means when it’s Jack.

Jordan was drawing regular double teams, of course, which is almost a ho hum, though they tended not to be that aggressive. One wonderful thing about watching these games when he was young is to see just how really good he was. Yes, if he’s the best, he had to be great. But so many remember him later in the ‘90s when he a great jump shooter and post up player. It’s something to see the quick first step and fearless attacks at the basket and the way 40 or 50 points almost seemed effortless, though in this game he earned it with that finish against a tough, physical team. These Bucks were the Detroit Pistons without quite the talent and the cheap shots, but just as tough.

The Bucks still would lead by eight, 82-74, going into the fourth quarter, a true classic even if it doesn’t make the highlight lists. The Bucks stretched their lead to 10 and 12 a few minutes into the fourth quarter, and it seemed unlikely the Bulls would come back against Milwaukee’s slower, more physical game.

But it was a finish to behold and savor with the Bulls still trailing by five with just over a minute left and down three with 15 seconds left after, of all things, a Jordan three as Jordan would shoot under 30 percent on threes that season. But this was a guy, as we know, who did rise to those occasions.

The Bulls went most of the fourth quarter inside with Corzine for Cartwright to play Sikma, along with Sellers. A picture of Sellers’ Chicago career came after the Bulls timeout when they fell behind my 12. Sellers hit a jumper out of the timeout, a reliable shooter. But on the next Bulls’ possession, he failed to finish strong on a fast break pass from Jordan, the kind of miss that usually would keep him from getting that pass again.

Although there would be some timely Bulls contributions—and big time Bucks failures—Jordan pretty much took over then with 27 of his 50 points in that amazing fourth quarter.

After a Sikma three put the Bucks ahead 95-88, Grant came through with a reverse and jump hook and Corzine had a nice seal and dunk. But it seemed over for the Bulls after a Sikma three with 68 seconds left. You could almost sense that in Durham’s call. But Jordan attacked in seconds with a drive and three, and then Pressey missed two huge free throws to give the Bulls a chance.

The Bulls seemed to blow it again, failing to foul rookie Mark Davis and fouling sure shooting Sikma instead for free throws. But Pressey threw away an inbounds pass with nine seconds left ahead by one. And then it was Jordan.

In what we now can look back and see as a harbinger for “The Shot” against Cleveland later that season for both Jordan and Red Kerr, Jordan takes that Bucks turnover trailing by one, dashes upcourt and goes lateral above the free throw line for an 18-footer to win it as time expires. And Kerr tries out that call he would make famous a few months later.