Determined to Win
If there is one disadvantage to winning back-to-back championships in any sport, it’s that eventually the extra games begin to wear on your team. After playing 99 meaningful games in 1991 and another 104 in ’92, Michael and Scottie rode away to Barcelona to play for the Dream Team. When they returned in the fall of ’92, it was clear: they were exhausted.
The ’93 Bulls got off to a good enough start, but didn’t dominate the way they had the past two years, and at the end of the season found themselves second best in the East behind the rising New York Knicks, and third best overall behind the Barkley-led Suns. Most critics saw both of these teams as legit threats to the Bulls’ dynasty; Sports Illustrated predicted the Knicks and the Suns in the Finals. The Bulls were finished…
…or so they said, but what these critics and cynics were overlooking were the Bulls’ intangibles, the little end-game oomph that had carried them through so many tough spots. To be fair, the ’93 Knicks and the ’93 Suns were both terrific teams, among the best that the Bulls ever had to beat over the six title seasons, and indeed they were both legitimate title contenders. But the Bulls were still the Bulls, and as much as the professionals seemed to ignore that, I knew the full weight of what it meant.
The first step towards the league’s first Three-Peat since the Eight-Peat Celtics was a first round match with the 43-win Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks had Dominique in prime Human Highlight Reel form that season, (29.9 ppg), but that was pretty much it. The Bulls swept them easily in the three games. Then in the second round came the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It is sometimes forgotten that as much as Detroit dominated us—and, more importantly, floated above us no matter what we accomplished—that is how much we dominated Cleveland. It was that Cavalier core of Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Craig Ehlo, Larry Nance, Ron Harper, and Hot Rod Williams that Magic Johnson predicted would be the “Team of the 90’s.” But we beat them 3-2 in 1988, then, despite Cleveland’s superior record, we beat ’em again in ’89, this time at the hands of “The Shot.” They missed the playoffs in 1991 but returned even stronger in 1992. That season they got to the Eastern Conference Finals, their furthest advance ever. Their reward? The 67-win Bulls, who charged through the Cavs in six. Cleveland responded by signing New York Knick guard and self-proclaimed “Jordan-Stopper” Gerald Wilkins.
Wilkins seemed primed for the challenge of guarding MJ and putting the Cavaliers over the top in the East. But Michael and the Bulls dispatched the Cavs with ease, winning the first three games of the series. The only game that was close was Game 4, in which Michael, backing Wilkins in the waning seconds of a tie game, turned and lofted a beautiful shot that dropped straight through as time expired. Michael turned and put his hands up in the air, as if to say “we’re the best, and there’s the proof.”
The Knicks would test that theory.
Like Cleveland, New York had been bullied by the Bulls over the past five years. Now, with home court advantage over their bitter rivals, New York felt their time had come. They took the first two games at home, extending their imposing MSG winning streak to 27 games.
It was a disheartening beginning. The most annoying Knick of all, John Starks, was having a great series on both sides of the floor. Defensively, Starks had the job of guarding Jordan, and without a self-applied nickname like Gerald Wilkins, Starks put on a masterful performance. Revealing Jordan’s dislike for smaller guards, and echoing Scottie’s defensive performance against Magic in the ’91 Finals, Starks banged with Michael, keeping him off-balance for the first two games. And then, in Game 2, that annoying little bastard unleashed one of the most incredible and frustrating in-game dunks in the history of the L.
As the Knicks looked to finish off Chicago and maintain their home court advantage, Starks moved slyly to his right before surging down the baseline, leaping for a sideways tomahawk jam right over Jordan and Grant, with B.J. looking on. As the crowd at Madison Square Garden exploded in celebration, Starks stuffed the ball through the rim, spun down towards the court on his hands like Barry Sanders breaking a tackle, and then shot up to run down the court and high five his teammates.
It was a statement play, one that announced the Knicks as a true force in the NBA and in the East. Had the Knicks won the championship, that play would have been the moment that Knick fans harkened back to as the spot in which their beloved Knicks went from runner-up to champion. But the Bulls were still the Bulls, and as much as the professionals seemed to ignore that, I knew the full weight of what it meant.
The series went home to Chicago, and in Game 3 the Bulls wasted little time in disposing New York. A twenty point victory in Game 3 was followed up by a ten point win in Game 4, one motored by MJ’s 54 points. The Bulls had tied the series, and now it was back to New York for the pivotal Game 5, back to the Knicks’ home court, back to Knicks fans and Knicks Nation and 27 straight Knicks wins at MSG. If the Bulls were going to get back to the Finals, they would have to win in New York.
This was a battle game in the truest sense. The Knicks were as determined to win as were the Bulls, and you had a sense that this time, in the minds of Ewing, Riley, Starks, Oakley, or anyone else in the Knicks’ organization, they would finally overthrow the Bulls. Back and forth they went, until finally, as is the case in all key games, it came to the Defining Moment.
The Bulls led by a point, and as the Knicks ran their half-court set, basketball fans in the Garden and around the country sat forward in their seats. It was pretty clear what was at stake here; the Knicks win, and they were a game away from the NBA Finals—and, more importantly, from dethroning the Bulls. The Bulls win, it was back to Chicago with a chance to wrap the series. Like “The Shot,” this play would be vital in the future of these two teams. Anyone who knew hoops and knew these two clubs knew the significance of this possession, of this game.
Marv Albert had the call. Classic. Bulls-Knicks and Marv, his voice ringing in my head: “The Knicks down by one with the ball.” (Doc Rivers brings the ball up and passes to Starks, who works on Jordan on the right side.) “Starks, played by Jordan. Ewing out to set a pick.” (Starks pumps on a shot, comes down, and then goes up for one before Jordan’s arms flash out, forcing the guard to dish to Ewing.) “Here’s Starks…changed his mind…” (Ewing with the ball at the top of the key, working on Stacey King…) “Plenty of time on the shot clock, down to ten, Ewing, for Smith…”
And here’s where it gets cool. Ewing stumbles, flinging a pass underneath to Charles Smith, and just as he corrals it and begins to go up for a shot, the organ music at the Garden stops. It just stops. It was as if the organ player at MSG knew what was coming. The whole play has this great dramatic build, and then the music stops and the Bulls swarm, quickly surrounding him, and Albert keeping up with the call, almost as confounded as the overwhelmed Smith:
“Smith…stripped, Smith, Smith, stopped, Smith stopped again! By Pippen! What a play by Scottie Pippen!” (Horace retrieves the loose ball, pivots to his left, and shoots a bounce pass to Michael, who heads up the court with the clock counting down. Jordan is met at mid court by four Knicks, who think they have him, until Jordan sees B.J. streaking beyond the defense…) “Final seconds! Jordan, for Armstrong!” (B.J. catches the pass on his left, and then defies the trailing defender with a right handed spin layup that drops through as the buzzer sounds…) “And the Bulls, have defeated the Knicks!” (…B.J. turning and throwing his arms up…Oakley slamming the ball down on the Garden floor…Michael and the gang fleeing to the locker room like bank robbers while Pippen hangs around for a postgame interview…the Garden stunned…Marv trying to remain professional) “The Chicago Bulls, with a couple of spectacular plays, Scottie Pippen stopping Charles Smith…and the Bulls win it….and that last basket will count…”
And that was that. When the buzzer sounded the air at the Garden came seeping out. The Knicks, and their fans, were in shock. They all knew it: they had missed their chance to finish off the Chicago Bulls. Four straight times Charles Smith attempted the game winning layup, and four straight times—two from Scottie, one from Horace, and one from Michael—the Bulls blocked his shot. No basket. No foul. No win.
The two teams returned to Chicago for Game 6, and while the Knicks were still in the game basketball-wise, in reality they never had a chance. They gave it a go, but by that point the Bulls had already won the series; Game 6 was merely a formality. Scottie hit a three late to put the game away, and as the ball dropped through he adjusted his extended hand into a victorious “#1” finger. It was the capper, with the Bulls riding it into the Finals…
During the Bulls’ dominant run, there were lots of great games. Games I recall with a glowing nostalgia. Games that helped define this team. “Pax for Three.” “The Flu Game.” “The Last Shot.” “Pippen’s Dunk vs. Washington.” “The Fourth Quarter Comeback against Portland.” There were games that clinched titles and games that ended with winning shots. There were games against determined foes and games against frightened road blocks. But for me, there are two games that stand above the rest: Game 4 of the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, and Game 5 of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals. Game 4 proved that the Bulls were a legit championship team, because by finishing off a sweep of the Pistons they were imposing their will upon the team that had tormented them. It was a statement opportunity, and the Bulls made a statement: they were the new sheriffs in town.
Well, Game 5 in ’93 was another statement game, and the four blocks on Charles Smith were the exclamation point. If there was one play in six years that best typified what this Bulls team was about, it was that play. On the road, everyone against them, everyone counting them out, and Scottie, Michael, and Horace would not let them lose. The Knicks were a great team in ’93, and they came back for another run Post-Jordan in ’94. But the Bulls were better, and that play showed why. It was the determination, the mindset, the feeling that no matter what it took to win the game, the Bulls were going to get it done.
There could be no doubt.
There could be no doubt about the best team in the NBA. The best TEAM in the NBA. There could be no doubt. There could be no doubt that Michael Jordan was the best player in the NBA, as he would show in the Finals against MVP Charles Barkley. But there could also be no doubt that the “supporting cast” was just as important as “the star,” that while Michael was the leader, Scottie made it go, and together, together, those two understood better than any other tandem in the NBA what had to be done to win a championship, and through the two of them their teammates came to understand it as well.
Charles Smith had the ball under the basket. He had four opportunities. The Bulls won all four. It wasn’t that Smith wasn’t trying; he simply could not win. The Bulls were in control. Every time the ball came back to Smith, the Bulls beat him. And when the ball finally bounced clear, the Bulls took control and scored the knockout. Above every Michael game winner and every title-clincher, it is that play that defines the six time World Champion Chicago Bulls. They came to New York as underdogs, a team whose time had come. They left New York as champions, with their will, not their skill, leading the way.
Charles Smith had the ball under the basket. He had four opportunities.
There was never a doubt.
More Bulls writing from readjack.com
The early days of my basketball knowledge
‘Learning the hard way’–the story of the 1988-1991 Bulls