Michael Jordan Hall of Fame | 'The Shot' propels Jordan's Bulls deeper into the postseason
In 1988-89, as Michael Jordan and the Bulls came off a 50-win season and a second round playoff appearance, the pressure was growing to become a so-called final four team.
“I never saw the shot go in,” Jordan would say of his game-winning shot to defeat the Cavs in the 1989 playoffs. “But I knew from the (stunned) silence.” (NBAE/Getty Images)
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It was years later, and it was said by Luc Longley, who wouldn’t become a Bull until 1993. And perhaps it was even more appropriate to the latter years of the dynasty, when the Bulls were winning and virtually unbeatable, and controversy seemed to rage everywhere.
“There’s more (crap) flying around this team than a diary in a tornado,” Longley said as the Bulls went for a sixth title in 1997.
This time it began in June 1988 in Atlantic City. I had also covered boxing part-time for the Chicago Tribune in the offseason, and I was at the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks fight in Atlantic City. So was Jordan. It’s when the Bulls traded Jordan’s latest buddy, Charles Oakley, for Knicks’ often-injured center Bill Cartwright. I caught up with Jordan that night and he was furious. After all, Oakley was not only his buddy, but his protector when the Pistons went after him. The Pistons players weren’t exactly tough. More so, snipers attacking by stealth when you weren’t looking or prepared. They didn’t like Oakley because he wasn’t afraid to take a shot back at them. And Oakley may have been the strongest player in the league, and one of its best rebounders and outlet passers, if occasionally capable of the incredible overthrow.
Cartwright, once an All-Star but oft injured since, had been part of the failed experiment to make him a dual big man attack with Patrick Ewing. So Cartwright was benched. Ewing and Jordan shared the same agent, David Falk, and though Ewing didn’t dislike Cartwright, the sense for Jordan was Cartwright was a castoff. Also, Cartwright was a more traditional inside scorer, and Jordan didn’t like the idea of the middle being closed with the defense able to sag on Cartwright. It will be intriguing to see how LeBron James handles this for the first time with Shaquille O’Neal this season. Jordan liked the idea of playing with Dave Corzine and Oakley, both of whom could rebound, but also pop out to shoot jumpers on offense and take the big men away from the basket.
Already, Jordan was taking shots at GM Krause. This would accelerate them. But there were other factors at work.
Phil Jackson, who had a growing voice with Krause, had been lobbying for Cartwright as necessary to fight off the other big centers in the East on defense. Though associated with the triangle offense, Jackson was more defense first. The Bulls and coach Doug Collins also saw such a move necessary to give the team options on offense to penetrate the middle not only with Jordan driving, but in passing the ball inside. Plus, Oakley, with an outspoken personality, had been at odds with Collins and management was anxious to see young forward Horace Grant teamed with fellow second-year forward Scottie Pippen, who had offseason back surgery and would start the season on the injured list. Pippen would only miss nine games, but it was going to be a struggle to reach 50 wins again with the addition of Cartwright to be worked into the lineup, with Pippen’s late arrival and with Collins feeling the pressure of that so-called next level.
Following series wins over Cleveland and New York during the 1989 playoffs, it was on to Detroit for the renewal of the best rivalry in the game and against the highly favored Pistons, who won 63 games that season.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
Jordan had made it clear he could accept losing relatively early in the playoffs as long as he saw progress. The Bulls had gotten better in each of his full seasons. But now following a 50-win season and a second round playoff appearance, the pressure was growing to become a so-called final four team.
It was an inauspicious start when the Bulls lost to the Pistons at home in the opener despite 28 points, seven assists and five steals from Jordan. Jordan was determined to make a more conscious effort to involve his teammates this season as the growing critical chorus around the NBA was the Bulls could not win because Jordan didn’t make his teammates better. If you couldn’t stop him, criticize him.
Jordan was getting better teammates, but hardly All-Stars yet, and the guy with the best chance, Pippen, was coming off surgery.
Jordan also was determined to make Jordan better. The knock on Jordan starting his career was that he wasn’t a very reliable shooter, that he was a driver and dunker, which accounted for his high shooting percentage. From the three-point line, Jordan shot 17.3 percent as a rookie, 16.7 percent his second season, 18.2 percent his third and 13.2 percent in 1987-88. The great players always will tell you that you improve your game in the offseason. That is the time when you add to your game to give the defense something else to consider. It wasn’t that any defense had an answer for Jordan. But Jordan always was ready for a challenge, and if critics said he couldn’t shoot, Jordan would show them.
Jordan ended the 1988-89 season shooting 27.6 percent on threes after being well above 30 percent the first half of the season, easily his best ever. The following season, in 1989-90, Jordan raised his three-point percentage for the season to 37.6 percent and qualified for the All-Star weekend-three point contest, though he recorded a record low score. But as Jordan always said, “I've never been afraid to fail.”
Jordan had backed off some to open the 1988-89 season and wasn’t dunking quite as much, in part, to preserve energy as Collins was playing him more than 40 minutes per game with Pippen out. In the first 20 games, Jordan played fewer than 40 minutes five times and then the rest of the season never fewer than 37 minutes.
The Bulls opened, shakily, at 1-2 going into Boston, where Jordan scored 52 points with nine steals. He loved playing in Boston because of the basketball history and tradition, and loved to put on a show there. He put up another 52 a week later in Philadelphia, another Eastern favorite spot for its rabid basketball fans, though the Bulls lost.
It was one of those classic duels that light up the regular season. Charles Barkley loved the challenge and loved to talk, but never could measure up to his buddy. Barkley’s 76ers would win that game as Jordan had 52 points on 24-of-29 shooting, while Barkley had 42 points and 16 rebounds. Great stuff.
They were 5-4 heading out west and lost four straight, though Jordan had his third 52-point game of the season as the Bulls lost in Denver and fell to 6-6.
The Bulls were 13-12 after a home loss to Cleveland despite 43 points and 12 rebounds from Jordan. But he was getting worried. He told reporters he “wasn’t giving up on this team… yet. I know there’s life there.” The Bulls then won three straight, lost two, and then ran off six consecutive wins with Jordan winning another classic shootout with Dominique Wilkins in Atlanta with 48 points and getting 42 at home to beat Boston.
Really. You had to sit back to consider the magnitude of these performances on such a regular basis. And Jordan was best against the best players and teams. How great is it to be better than expectations?
The Bulls also were prospering from another quiet move general manager Krause had made the previous month in acquiring Craig Hodges for Ed Nealy.
Jordan still was putting up the points, like 53 against the Suns Jan. 21. But he also was looking for his teammates like never before. By the end of the season, Jordan became the only shooting guard to average eight rebounds and eight assists in a season while also averaging 32.5 points.
Can’t pass? Can’t make teammates better? Can’t give them opportunities? We’ll see about that. Jordan always felt with the double and triple teaming coverage he received, it gave teammates more open shots. Now he’d find them. So the assists started piling up, 13 in a win over Indiana Jan. 17 in which Paxson was the leading scorer with 24. A dozen at Philadelphia a week later when Jordan scored his 10,000th point. Double figures in assists three times in four games just before the All-Star break. The Bulls hit the break at 27-19, came out strong and then slumped again in the up and down season. Jordan was becoming frustrated and even with his emphasis on passing he was disappointed in the team results. He’d move the ball for three quarters and then find the team behind and everyone looking toward him to save them. Assistant John Bach joked it was the archangel offense: Michael, Save Us.
The key game was a blowout loss in Boston March 8, when Jordan didn’t make the trip with a slight groin pull. There was some speculation he was pulling a fast one and asking the team to step up without him, that he was frustrated with the lack of team results. Jordan watched on TV and was furious. I remember calling him during the game back in Chicago and Jordan lamenting the team’s refusal to stand up to the Celtics. Jordan also continued to hear the criticism that while he could score, he couldn’t set up his teammates like Magic Johnson and the triple-doubles Johnson got were more valuable than Jordan’s scoring.
When the team returned from Boston the next morning, Jordan was waiting to meet with Collins. Sam Vincent had been sinking badly, and it was agreed Jordan would shift to point guard. Jordan also quietly liked the idea in sort of a way to show up Johnson, or, at least, show that he could do what Johnson did if needed. Triple-doubles? Ask me to do something difficult?
Jordan’s first game at the point the Bulls beat Seattle as Cartwright led the team in scoring and Jordan had 18 points and 15 assists. In the next game, a win over the Pacers, Jordan had 21 points, 14 assists and 14 rebounds.
Shorty thereafter, Jordan began a remarkable run with 10 triple-doubles in 11 games. In the only game Jordan didn’t have a triple-double in that stretch, he had 40 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in an overtime loss to the Pistons. Following that failure to get the triple-double, Jordan got triple-doubles the next two games while scoring 40 points at Atlanta and 47 points at Indiana. But the Bulls lost both in the midst of a six-game losing streak with Paxson, Pippen and Hodges nursing injuries. Jordan simply had to do it all. It was a gruesome and grueling stretch finish as the Bulls lost eight of their last 10 to finish the season 47-35, three games poorer than the previous season.
Tensions were high as Collins was feuding with assistants Jackson and Tex Winter, and Krause had made a classic misstatement that further alienated him with Collins while trying to praise someone else. If there was a wrong way to say something, even when he wasn’t trying, leave it to Krause. Collins had been ejected in a December game against the Bucks. Jackson took over and the team responded with a big win. Being more defensive-oriented than Collins, Jackson went with more pressure on defense and mostly left the offense alone. The played liked it and responded well and talked happily afterward about the win.
Krause, in trying to champion the hiring of the controversial Jackson, said it showed the Bulls had an able assistant who could be a head coach. The sensitive Collins saw it as Krause grooming Jackson to be his head coach. It turned out that way, though that wasn’t Krause’s intention when he said it. It also was a horrible coincidence for Jackson’s relationship with Collins as Jackson’s wife, June, had accepted an invitation that night to join Krause’s wife at the game in Milwaukee and they were shown sitting together on the TV broadcast. There was no sighting of Collins’ wife. It only continued to feed Collins’ anxiety of what was going on behind the scenes, whether justified or not.
Krause had difficulty expressing himself, like before the 1997-98 season when he said something like “organizations win championships,” which was interpreted as a slap at the players and praise for management. Krause was trying to give credit to all the scouts and internal staff, but, as often, it came out the wrong way. So by season’s end, Collins was a mess with the pressure and relations with Jordan and his team.
The Bulls first round playoff opponent was Cleveland, which was 5-0 against the Bulls that season coming into the final game of the season in the Stadium. The Cavs were the young and upcoming team of that season with the great pick-and-roll game of Mark Price and Brad Daugherty, the athletic star in Ron Harper, and the veteran Larry Nance. Magic Johnson had admiringly called them the team of the ‘90s. He wasn’t alone. The Cavs decided to rest all their starters with Price nursing a groin injury while the Bulls played their regulars. Led by Randolph Keys, the Cavs dominated the Bulls to sweep the season series 6-0. Just a week before, the Bulls had lost in Cleveland by 19.
No one gave them a chance in the playoffs.
Yet, Jordan picked the Bulls in four....