Here’s why the Bulls are the greatest basketball team of all time–the element overlooked by all those experts who are forever pointing out matchup problems they’d have had with the mid-80s Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers, or with the early 70s Lakers or the 60s Celtics. The Bulls find a way to take opponents out of what they like to do, not just physically but mentally. They identify where opponents find comfort and systematically deprive them of it. Matchups become irrelevant.
Look at Sunday’s third game of the National Basketball Association finals between the Bulls and the Utah Jazz. The Jazz came into this series with a reputation as one of the most precise and smooth-flowing offensive machines in NBA history, featuring the vaunted pick-and-roll run by John Stockton, the league’s career assists leader, and Karl Malone, commonly called the best power forward ever. Bulls coach Phil Jackson called the pick-and-roll Utah’s “comfort play,” as if he were referring to a security blanket. But the Bulls clogged up that machinery in the second game in Utah to knot the series at one apiece, and two days later in Chicago they took the Jazz apart. Though both teams had little time to make adjustments before the third game, the Bulls came up with one, setting Scottie Pippen free to play a lone-wolf defense. Jackson cleared the scheme with the referees (including the infamous Hue Hollins) in an unusual pregame confab that included Utah coach Jerry Sloan. The result was that Pippen ran the Jazz out of their set plays so that they could never establish a comfort zone, and the Bulls inflicted a 96-54 thrashing, setting a record for fewest points allowed not just in the finals, not just in the playoffs, but in any game since the NBA adopted the 24-second shot clock.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a team play better defensively in all my years in this business,” Sloan said afterward. Considering that Sloan played on the ferocious Dick Motta-coached Bulls teams of the early 70s–the best defensive team of a defensive-minded era–that was the utmost compliment.
The primary adjustment Utah made for game three was to start the bigger Greg Ostertag at center instead of Greg Foster. This was intended to make the Bulls play straight-up defense, with Chicago center Luc Longley on Ostertag and the tall but slight Toni Kukoc on Malone, or at least vice versa. But the Bulls countered by continuing to play the big Longley on Malone and shifting Kukoc onto Utah’s spot-up outside shooter, Jeff Hornacek. Pippen was to guard Ostertag only if the Jazz succeeded in getting into their half-court offense. His first assignment was to double-team Stockton with Ron Harper. The Jazz were so confounded by this scheme that the few times Stockton tried to get the ball to a wide-open Ostertag the pass usually went awry.
On the other end, the matchups were producing a very comfortable situation for the Bulls. Kukoc roamed the perimeter, pulling his man, Malone, away from the basket. Jordan, guarded by Hornacek, had a shot whenever he wanted it or, if double-teamed, found an open man cutting to the basket. The Bulls shot poorly to start, and fell behind 6-1 and 10-5, but anyone could see they were getting good looks and that it was just a matter of time before their shots started dropping. When Sloan replaced Stockton with the younger but less gritty Howard Eisley at point guard, the Bulls instantly posted him up with Harper. The Bulls had several options on offense, while the Jazz had one: Malone.
He hit his first six shots in the first quarter but the rest of his team made just 1 of 16, and at the end of the quarter the Jazz found themselves trailing the Bulls 17-14. Whenever Pippen failed to hound Stockton into an error and had to drop back and play defense on Ostertag, he found other ways to disrupt the Utah pick-and-roll by beating Malone to his predictable spots on the floor and drawing offensive fouls. “Scottie’s capable of being a one-man wrecking crew, and this was a perfect example of that,” Jackson said later. Pippen drew an offensive foul on Malone early in the second quarter that got him questioning his shots, and when Jordan went down to the other end and hit an easy turnaround fade, the Bulls led 31-23 and the rout was on. Jordan got the crowd going with a fancy little switch-of-hands lefty lay-in to make it 43-29, and in the final minutes of the half the Jazz had the aspect of Custer at Little Big Horn, standing around under their hoop as shots and bodies went flying all around them. It was 49-31 at intermission, and Kukoc opened the second half by popping a jumper over Malone for a 20-point lead that all but crushed the Jazz’s spirit before they could even consider mounting a rally.
As usual with the Bulls, their defensive determination at one end of the court produced beautiful results at the other. Jordan added a new shot to his finals highlights reel, the plumb bob, as he drove the baseline, leaped, took a body shot from Ostertag, and tossed a reverse layup high off the glass and through the hoop, like a barometer going up and down with a storm front. That made it 56-35. The score was 60-38 and the game was all but over when Pippen sacrificed his body to take yet another Malone offensive foul. After that came show time. Scott Burrell, in off the bench, blocked a Bryon Russell shot and ran out toward the Bulls’ basket. Harper grabbed the ball with two hands and hurled it blindly over his shoulder to Burrell, who went in for a dunk and a 66-42 lead. Moments later, Dennis Rodman heaved an outlet pass the length of the court for Pippen, who in one motion caught it and passed to a trailing Burrell for a lay-in and a 76-47 lead. By the time Steve Kerr added two threes to make it 84-49, Sloan had sat down on the Utah bench–as sure a sign of concession as any.
Before the game could end, Jordan, Harper, Pippen, and Kukoc were on the Bulls’ bench laughing at an inept Chicago fast break in which the ball somehow rolled to Dickey Simpkins under the hoop, where he dunked with an emphasis that suggested it was the game winner. That, to the Bulls, only added to the joke.
“Kill or be killed,” Jordan said matter-of-factly after the game. The cry of “No prisoners!” had been strictly optional.
This willingness to up the stakes, to make the finals not merely a series of basketball games but a life-or-death struggle of wills, is what separates the Bulls from all others. The Jazz came in thinking this was just another NBA finals in a year when they had home-court advantage and, it appeared, the better team. Both teams played tentatively in the first game, the Bulls coming off a heated seven-game series with the Indiana Pacers, the Jazz off a ten-day break after sweeping the Lakers. Both teams shot poorly, and both hit the doldrums with Utah up 69-65 in the fourth quarter. “Next basket wins?” I wrote in my notebook, and the Jazz eventually produced it on a fast break to Malone. But the Bulls clambered back and forced the game into overtime. Malone, however, got the first hoop of the extra session on a pick-and-roll and Stockton made the last Utah basket with a lovely running shot over Kerr in the lane, and the Jazz came away with an 88-85 victory.
The Bulls are nothing if not resilient. Kukoc played an awful game in the opener, but he joined Jordan and Pippen in providing all the Chicago points–eight, eight, and seven respectively–as the Bulls led 23-20 after a quarter of the second game. The rest of the game was a scrum, as the Jazz shut down Kukoc and the Bulls broke up the pick-and-roll. It was won, in the end, on hustle plays, with the Bulls controlling the boards to the point where even the relatively tiny Kerr pulled down a long rebound in front of Malone, then drove for a wraparound pass to Jordan and a three-point play when Jordan was fouled on the layup. That put the Bulls up for good, 88-86, and the 93-88 victory seemed to crush Utah’s confidence.
“Hopefully, we’ll play a little harder” in Chicago, an exasperated Sloan said afterward. “I hate to see guys not compete.” Yet as the Jazz quit in the third game that’s exactly what he saw, and Utah was left trying to pull itself back together, facing what at the time seemed impending elimination in Chicago in five games.
One thing about the Indiana Pacers: the Bulls never succeeded in crushing their confidence, though they came close in the fifth game with what at that point was their most beautiful and sustained basketball of the playoffs. Typical was a three-on-one fast break in which Harper came down the middle with Kukoc on his left and Jordan on his right. Harper passed to Kukoc, who caught the ball in stride and slung it behind his back crosscourt to Jordan. Mark Jackson, the Pacers’ backpedaling defender, took one step toward Kukoc when the first pass went to him, and that opened the door for Jordan to dunk ahead of Jackson’s recovery. Jackson did get in a foul, however, and when Jordan converted the free throw for a three-point play the Bulls led 74-45 in the third quarter. Still, the Bulls didn’t coast home. Jordan stayed on the floor long after the outcome was determined to administer the last few lashes, apparently in an attempt to break the Pacers’ spirit. It didn’t work. The Pacers won the sixth game at home and fully earned it–earned it more than they had the third game, given them by the Bulls, or the fourth game, given them by the refs. The Bulls, it’s true, had the lead when a controversial illegal-defense call by their longtime nemesis, Hollins, with 90 seconds to go gave the Pacers a free throw made by Chris Mullin to tie the game at 87. But from there the game was won by Travis Best, Indiana’s backup point guard. Best hit a tough shot over Kerr to put the Pacers up a basket with 33 seconds to play. Jordan tied the game with a pair of free throws, but then rashly slapped at Best driving past him, and Best made both foul shots. When Jordan was inadvertently tripped by Derrick McKey on the final possession, the Pacers had won.
There was an almost tangible sense of dread to the seventh game. Jordan had stayed overlong on the floor in the fifth game but the Pacers hadn’t cracked, and they were certain to come out determined. Kukoc–given the start over Rodman, even though the style of play figured to be a scrum–got lit up by Dale Davis early and often and the Bulls fell behind 14-5. Jackson called a time-out but left Kukoc in, and it wasn’t until the Bulls fell behind 20-8 and Rodman came off the bench that they rallied. The Bulls closed to within 27-19 at the quarter, and when Jordan fed Kerr for a three to make it 28-26 the crowd–which already had burst forth with some, believe it or not, spontaneous chants of “Let’s go Bulls!”–was loud. The two teams clawed back and forth, but with just under five minutes to go in the half Pippen passed out of a double-team crosscourt to Kerr for an open three and a 36-33 Chicago lead (keep that play in mind). With Burrell still struggling with his shot under playoff pressure, Jud Buechler came off the bench and gave the Bulls some energetic play when they needed it on their way to a 48-45 halftime lead. Throughout the playoffs, Buechler has been the one player out on the floor shooting baskets 90 minutes before game time, and when he finally got his chance he was ready. Jackson said afterward the game revitalized his confidence in the Bulls’ bench.
There wasn’t an armchair coach who didn’t disagree with Jackson’s decision to start Kukoc again in the second half. Yet it turned out to be the essential decision of the game. Time and again Kukoc drifted out to the three-point line, leaving Davis lurking nearer the basket, and popped jump shots. He started with a shot from the top of the key, followed with a jumper coming off a screen, and then hit a pair of threes to put the Bulls up 61-57. His shooting opened the floor for everyone else, and when Jordan drove the lane and passed wide to an open Kukoc for another three, the Bulls led 68-61. They took a 69-65 advantage into the last quarter.
Both teams opened the final frame playing stiff defense, but the Pacers actually nudged ahead at 73-71 with seven and a half minutes to play. Then Jordan, with his unerring sense of the moment, exploded off a Longley screen and skied for an in-your-face jam over Rik Smits, a foul, and a three-point play that put the Bulls up 74-73. Again the Pacers crawled in front and this time Jordan missed a shot, but the rebound bounced to Pippen, who drew the defense to the corner and again passed crosscourt to Kerr for a three and a tie game at 77. Kerr then performed a critical play on defense, drawing a huge offensive foul on Best. The little second-year point guard finally succumbed to the pressure, at one point picking the ball up off his dribble and just standing there in the corner with no one to pass to as precious seconds elapsed. Bird yanked him and put in Jackson, a player the Bulls knew how to handle. Kerr, Pippen, and Kukoc played a swarming, switching defense on him and Smits to stymie the Pacers, who didn’t score a point in the last two minutes. Pippen’s stiff-armed, catapult hook shot over Davis while driving to the baseline–the ball hit the front of the rim, bounced high off the backboard, and dropped through the hoop–made it 87-83 and all but sealed the game. When Jordan wound up with the ball at the final buzzer, he tucked it under one arm and pumped his fist with the other before doubling over in exhaustion.
Jordan displayed a truly shit-eating grin when he said afterward that there had never been any doubt. He went on to make a sly reference to eventually looking back on six championships and peered out of the corner of his eye to see if anyone noticed or took offense. No one did, not then and certainly not later on, after the Bulls had seized a 2-1 finals lead with the most punishing and unforgiving defensive performance Sloan or the Jazz had ever seen.