David Stern famously said the NBA’s ideal Finals matchup was “Lakers vs. Lakers,” but in 1991, he was pretty, pretty happy with how things turned out: Lakers vs. Bulls … and, really … Magic vs. Michael.
Magic was already, well, Magic. He’d driven the “Showtime” Ferrari to a ridiculous five titles since earning Finals MVP as a rookie in 1980, and was about to start his ninth Finals series in 12 seasons. A true living legend, Magic – with a little help from Larry Bird – had already no-look-passed the NBA to new heights. Meanwhile, Jordan’s legend was growing fast as he prepared to take the League to an even greater zenith. There was nobody more imposing with his combination of physical and mental gifts, nobody cooler. But he’d yet to play in a Finals game, and there was skepticism about if he and the Bulls could really take down Magic, fellow 1988 Finals MVP Big Game James and the Lakers. The two stars had split the last four MVP’s, MJ in 1988 and 91, and Magic the two in between, their showdown fully primed.
“This is a dream come true to play Michael in the Finals,” said Magic. “It’s something I think we’ve both been looking forward to. When you’re a competitor, you want to play against the best. I played against Larry, and I’ve always wanted to play against Michael.”
On the NBC pregame show, Bob Costas’ partner was none other than Lakers legend Pat Riley, just before he was took over the Knicks. Riles summarized the NBA Finals like this: “You cannot feel good enough just by being here,” he told viewers. “It comes down to one thing: winning, or misery.”
With a new coach, Mike Dunleavy, and new starter Sam Perkins to play alongside Magic, Worthy, Byron Scott and second-year center Vlade Divac, the Lakers went 58-24 before sweeping Houston in Round 1, handling Golden State 4-1 in Round 2 and taking care of Portland (who’d finished with the NBA’s best record of 63-19) 4-2 in the WCF.
Meanwhile, Phil Jackson was in his 2nd season coaching the Bulls, and led them to an Eastern Conference-best 61-21 record. They sailed to the Finals, sweeping the Knicks, beating Philly 4-1 and demolishing the Jordan-Rules Pistons 4-0 in the ECF. Jordan’s 31.5 ppg on 53.9% FG’s with 5.5 dimes and 2.7 steals were complemented by ultimate wing man Scottie Pippen, with Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright and John Paxson rounding out the starting five.
OK … let’s send it to Marv Albert and the Czar of the Telestrator, Mike Fratello:
9:43: Watching a game from the early 1990’s looks very little like watching an NBA game today, mostly due to the massive difference in 3-point shooting. The game began with Worthy, Divac and Perkins all scoring in Chicago’s paint, and Cartwright scoring inside before Jordan hit the game’s first perimeter shot, a long two: “Both teams will try to establish an inside game right away, the coaches told us yesterday,” said Fratello.
7:00: Jordan took the assignment of defending Magic from the opening tip. Magic mostly back-dribbled his way from half court to the 3-point line, where he’d initiate the offense with a pass to either wing, trying to get his teammates going, especially Worthy, who along with Perkins was hitting early to put LAL up 10-5 before MJ’s first dunk.
5:38: Big Game James drilled his fourth FG in the opening minutes, a pretty baseline jump hook, to put LAL up 16-10. There was a lot of discussion pregame about Worthy’s balky ankle, with Dunleavy suggesting he was around 70 percent at that time ... and it would get worse as Game 1 went on. Riley also pointed out that Pippen had given Worthy some issues in the regular season due to his rare combo of quickness and length, but Worthy had the early advantage.
Side note: Mychal Thompson has – for years – argued with us on Lakers planes and busses that Worthy’s ankle was (spoiler alert!) the main issue in the series. He still hasn’t come off that argument, and just texted me: “That’s THE reason we lost.” I countered: “It wasn’t … Jordan?” Stay tuned for his response.
2:00: The Bulls were a little nervy early in their first Finals game … with the exception of Jordan. His ferocious dunk was his third already, and he had 11 points with three assists to account for 17 of CHI’s first 20 points as they trailed by one.
1:10: Magic’s first points came at the FT line, after he drew a foul on MJ. Magic was terrific at getting to the line throughout that postseason, averaging a playoff-career-high 9.4 attempts, and hitting 8.3 of them (88.2%), towards his 21.8 ppg with 12.6 assists, 8.1 boards and 1.2 steals. Not bad!
0:06.7: Perkins drilled his second 3-pointer of the quarter, which basically shocked Marv and Fratello. Threes were mostly a novelty, but Perkins could certainly let it fly, a stretch 4/5 before they were cool.
0:00: Jordan found Grant alone at the rim for a quarter-ending layup that gave Chicago a 30-29 lead, thanks mostly to his 15 points on 7 of 10 FG’s plus 5 assists. LAL played the better team game, spreading their scoring around, but they’d yet to find an answer for MJ.
9:15: LAL sub Terry Teagle scored early in the 2nd Q amidst an 8-2 LAL run that put them up 37-32, reminding me of why the Lakers would eventually lose the series … Dunleavy wasn’t playing Mychal Thompson! “Yeah,” texted Mychal. “Nothin but DNPCDs for ME. Dunleavy…” The new coach played a short rotation that in fairness isn’t uncommon in the Finals, with four starters getting at least 40 minutes and Scott 37. Teagle played 10 minutes, A.C. Green 16 and Larry Drew 5, for a total of five bench points. Meanwhile, Worthy was still dealing, up to 14 points.
7:10: A graphic showed the all-time playoff scorers at that point, of course dominated by Lakers and Celtics: 1) Kareem (5,762 points); 2) West (4,457); 3) Havlicek (3,776); 4) Bird (3,681); 5) Elgin (3,623); 6) Wilt (3,607) and 7) Magic (3,547).
Today’s list includes a few more Lakers, starting with a current one: 1) LeBron (6,911); 2) Jordan (5,987); 3) Kareem; 4) Kobe (5,640); 5) Shaq (5,250); 6) Duncan (5,172) and 7) Karl Malone (4,761).
4:30: Pippen had an excellent stretch alongside four bench players, spurring an 8-0 run that erased a 7-point Lakers lead while Jordan got his first rest. Magic returned with Jordan, and promptly helped the Lakers stop the run by drawing another foul by driving into Will Perdue. Terrific energy from both teams.
2:15: Dunleavy started to send more bodies at Mike after his ridiculous first quarter, with three Lakers converging on Jordan’s drive late in the 2nd Q, and Scott getting a steal that ultimately got Perkins two FT’s on the other end to make it a 47-all tie. UNC’s 1982 championship squad was QUITE prominent here, with Jordan (a freshman), Perkins (sophomore) and Worthy (junior) all repping Carolina blue.
0:17.9: Magic “did not give Jordan a chance to body up on him, or to double … as soon as he caught the basketball, he turned and went,” said Fratello, as Magic got back to the FT line. In Game 1, Magic showed a great mix of attacking to get to the line, and passing out to the perfect spot when doubles came. I wonder how much LeBron has watched Magic at this stage of his career ... LeBron post ups have been the most effective play for any NBA team this season, and they look pretty similar to some of these possessions for Magic, who’d finish with 11 assists and 10 FTA’s.
0:00: LAL went into halftime trailing by just two despite shooting 44 percent, compared to a scorching 61 percent for CHI. L.A. did hold Jordan to only three points in the 2nd Q after his 15 in the first, though he was up to eight assists. Going into halftime, NBC had a graphic comparing Jordan to Magic, and of course the difference was five championships to zero. Marv said Jordan would “like to put a dent into that.”
9:00: Magic’s seventh assist came off his graceful-yet-powerful transition push you watched so many times throughout the 1980’s, with the 22-year-old Yugoslavian* showcasing his terrific hands with the catch and layup. Vlade was so skilled, and often relieved pressure from the high-pressure Chicago defense, while also managing to score 16 points with 14 boards, 3 steals and 3 blocks in 44 minutes. His two FT’s moments after the layup tied the game at 59.
*Yugoslavia was in turmoil at the time of the Finals, and the republic would devolve into war in 1992, splitting into five different countries, including Divac’s native Serbia.
6:10: Magic’s first FG of the game kept LAL within one, as he buried a running 1-handed floater to beat the shot clock. The Lakers were content to slow the pace as much as possible, methodically waiting until late in the shot clock, and never panicking. All five starters were capable of creating their own shot.
2:01: Simple, effective, smart basketball – Magic calmly backed his way into the edge of the paint, waited for Worthy’s man (Grant, on that possession) to dig down, and fed Big Game for a pull-up J. Worthy, by the way, was not moving great on that sore ankle, but he hit another shot from the same spot on the next trip to answer Pippen’s hoop and put LAL back on top, 69-68.
0.00.6: MAGIC! How about back-to-back 3’s in the final minute of the third, including one just ahead of the buzzer, to shush a formerly raucous Chicago Stadium crowd and give LAL their first semblance of breathing room in the form of a 75-68 lead. The Bulls didn’t bother to contest either attempt, one in semi-transition, the other in Jordan’s face. Magic, a career 30.3% 3-point shooter, hit 32.0% that regular season (3.2 attempts) and 29.6% in 19 playoff games, though he did make 21 triples in the postseason, doubling his previous high of 10 in 1988-89.
“Michael won the early rounds, but you sense there is Magic in the air!” exclaimed Marv heading into the fourth. Mammoth shots from Magic.
9:30: Uh … get Magic back in there! Dunleavy tried to get Magic a few minutes of rest, and Chicago took advantage with a 6-0 run, getting to within one and forcing a time out. Magic returned, but Jordan scored four quick points to put the Bulls up 78-75, completing a 10-0 run. Many teams would have crumbled under those circumstances, but not Magic’s Lakers. He got back to the FT line and hit 1 of 2 before finding Divac for a layup to tie the game at 78. Meanwhile: Pippen’s fifth foul had him on Phil’s bench.
6:53: There’s Magic, again. Just doing everything. A layup through two Bulls bigs at the rim put LAL up 80-78. He quelled the big Chicago run almost singlehandedly, and had reached a triple-double (17, 10 and 10 at that point). He didn’t win five rings by accident!
4:33: Magic drew Mike’s fifth foul and hit two more FT’s to make it 94-90, LAL. Jordan had just canned a jumper that was answered by Worthy’s layup, but Big Game was limping even more noticeably at this point. He was struggling to move defensively, and Jordan added an assist for Grant’s dunk, then an and-1 hanging J to put the Bulls back on top.
3:30: Chicago had begun to aggressively trap Magic the second he crossed half court. LAL just stayed disciplined, eventually working the ball back to Johnson later in the clock. Divac hit a pair of FT’s as a result of the Bulls trap to put LAL up one. The FT line was a massive factor in this one, LAL hitting 28 of 34 attempts to CHI’s 14 of 18, making up for the discrepancy in FGM’s (38 for CHI, 30 for LAL).
2:33: Danger time for LAL, as Pippen’s J put the home team up 89-86. LAL’s response: a tough, hanging J in the paint from Perkins. LAL got a stop on D, then 1 of 2 FT’s from Perkins after a time out. He finished with 22 points on 8 of 17 FG’s. All tied at 89 with 1:30 to play.
0:46.0: After two Pippen FT’s, Divac missed a wide-open baseline jumper again created by the quick trap of Magic. Jordan juuuust missed a bank shot on the other end, and Dunleavy called his final time out with 23.5 seconds to play. Worthy could only stand around on offense, limiting how LAL typically would have countered the trap of Magic. How was L.A. going to find a way?
0:14.0: Perkins for three! LAL had caught Chicago completely off guard. The Bulls weren’t able to trap Magic right away, because Perkins, Scott and just-inserted Teagle were all spaced on the opposite side of the floor. Divac was off the floor, and Cartwright didn’t have a big to guard, so he was on Perkins. Still, the Bulls game plan was to take the ball out of Magic’s hand, so Cartwright left Perkins to try and come over to help on Magic, and Magic fired a one-handed pass across the court. Perk let it fly before Grant could rotate off his own man to Perkins, and absolutely buried it. That was his third make in four attempts. Great play call from Dunleavy.
For a point of comparison, in 2019-20, the Lakers have attempted 31.4 3’s per game, ranking 23rd in the NBA (No. 1 Houston attempts a staggering 44.2 per game). In this 1991 Finals game, the Lakers attempted 10 triples, making five, and the Bulls seven, making only one (Jordan).
0:12.0: The Lakers needed just one stop to win Game 1, take home court advantage, and in their own mind, open a clear path to Magic’s sixth title. With that at stake, Jordan collected the ball on the inbounds pass and drove into four Lakers, and somebody in the crowd deflected the rock out of bounds into a Bulls time out. By the way, in case you were wondering, NBC gave their lineup for that night: “Our Shining Moment,” “Expose,” “Real Life with Jane Pauley” and “Murder in High Places.” Can’t say I was into any of those shows at age 10.
0:09.0: Jordan got a great look at a jump shot after a crossover dribble easily freed him from Perkins, but he missed, in and out. Scott cleared the rebound, and while he missed the first of two FT’s with 2.7 seconds left, Chicago was out of time outs, and Pippen missed a desperation shot from midcourt. Game over. Lakers 93, Bulls 91 snapped a 15-game home playoff winning streak for Chicago.
0:00: Magic finished a hell of a game with 19 points on 4 of 5 FG’s and 9 of 10 FT’s, hitting both of his 3-point attempts at the end of the third quarter, not to mention 11 assists, 10 boards and one steal. A hobbled Worthy managed 22 points on 11 of 24 FG’s, but his injured ankle would plague him and his team as the Bulls went on to win the next four games.
Jordan had 36 points on 14 of 24 FG’s with 12 assists, eight boards and three steals; Pippen chipped in 19 points, 7 boards and 5 assists with a pair of blocks, but the All-Star duo didn’t get much help, as no other Bull managed more than six points (in fact, five Bulls had six exactly).
After I finished the game, I texted Mychal again, wondering if maybe it was Jordan, more than anything else, that ultimately vanquished the Lakers despite their super impressive, gritty, intelligent Game 1 win in hostile territory. His abbreviation-heavy response:
“No...We won game 1 HEALTHY...IN CHICAGO...James goes down for the series ala KD last year...and we were done without him...Just like the Warriors were handicapped without KD. Only bcuz they didn’t hav James to worry about.”
MT isn’t backing down … and he didn’t even mention his son Klay ALSO being out for Golden State, by the way!
He concluded with this: “U were wat? 6 years old? 5*? So u wudnt know.”
Alas. What a game. What a moment. Magic besting Michael for a final time, before the torch of greatness was passed for the rest of the 1990’s up until Jordan would pass it on to the next great player: Kobe Bryant.
I’ll be back this weekend to watch one of Kobe’s games for our next Retro Running Diary.