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Michael Jordan had won four straight NBA scoring titles by the time the 1990-91 season began, and his vast array of endorsements had made him a household name. But, he was dogged by the Wilt Chamberlain syndrome.
Every sports fan with even a passing familiarity with the NBA would quote how no team with the scoring champ had won a title since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Bucks pulled off the feat in 1971.
Jordan had been the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 1985, had been named to the All-NBA First Team four straight years and had even been named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team three straight times. But Jordan’s Bulls couldn’t seem to get by Detroit, having lost to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals each of the past two postseasons.
But the Bulls had made drastic changes since Jordan’s rookie year. John Paxson was signed as a free agent in 1985. Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen were added in the 1987 Draft and center Bill Cartwright was acquired for Charles Oakley in 1988. Finally, B.J. Armstrong was selected in the 1989 NBA Draft. By 1990, the Bulls were ready to supplant the Pistons.
Chicago won a franchise-record and NBA-best 61 games, blowing through New York, Philadelphia and their nemesis, Detroit, on the way to the NBA Finals.
Out West, the Lakers became a defensive unit under new coach Mike Dunleavy, moved past Houston, Golden State and Portland to advance to The Finals.
The 1991 NBA Finals was billed as a matchup between two larger-than-life superstars — Jordan and Magic Johnson. But as the series played out, it became obvious that it took a team, not one superlative individual, to win an NBA title.
Jordan was superb, as his series averages of 31.2 points, 11.4 assists and 6.6 rebounds demonstrated, but the Bulls were no one-man team. Their defense held the Lakers to a record-low 458 points for a five-game series. Jordan, who had won his fifth straight scoring title in April, had finally silenced those who said he couldn’t lead the Bulls all the way.
“I never thought I’d be this emotional,” said Jordan, who cried and repeatedly hugged the NBA’s championship trophy. “I’ve never been this emotional publicly.”
Before the season, the Orlando Magic went from the Central Division in their inaugural season (1989-90) to the Western Conference’s Midwest Division. Still, the Magic improved by 13 wins and saw its point guard, Scott Skiles, set an NBA record for assists in a game (30) on Dec. 30, 1990, against Denver.
The Phoenix Suns set a record, too, scoring 107 first-half points against the Nuggets on Nov. 10, 1990. It was a remarkable feat considering the Suns had set the mark three days earlier in a game against the Spurs.
Eastern Conference first round
Chicago defeated New York (3-0)
Boston defeated Indiana (3-2)
Detroit defeated Atlanta (3-2)
Philadelphia defeated Milwaukee (3-0)
Western Conference first round
Portland defeated Seattle (3-2)
Golden State defeated San Antonio (3-1)
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Houston (3-0)
Utah defeated Phoenix (3-1)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Chicago defeated Philadelphia (4-1)
Detroit defeated Boston (4-2)
Western Conference semifinals
Los Angeles defeated Golden State (4-1)
Portland defeated Utah (4-1)
Eastern Conference finals
Chicago defeated Detroit (4-0)
Western Conference finals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Portland (4-2)
Chicago defeated Los Angeles Lakers (4-1)
Points — Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls (31.5)
Assists — John Stockton, Utah Jazz (14.2)
Rebounds — David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs (13.0)
Steals — Alvin Robertson, Milwaukee Bucks (3.0)
Blocks — Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets (3.9)
FG % — Buck Williams, Portland Trail Blazers (60.2)
FT % — Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers (91.8)
3PT % — Jim Les, Sacramento Kings (46.1)
Most Valuable Player — Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
Rookie of the Year — Derrick Coleman, New Jersey Nets
Defensive Player of the Year — Dennis Rodman, Detroit Pistons
Most Improved Player — Scott Skiles, Orlando Magic
Sixth Man of the Year — Detlef Schrempf, Indiana Pacers
Coach of the Year — Don Chaney, Houston Rockets
All-Star Game MVP — Charles Barkley, Philadelphia 76ers
Finals MVP — Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls