The 1989 Chicago Bulls: Jordan’s Playoff Breakthrough

The Chicago Bulls were making gradual progress since the drafting of Michael Jordan prior to the 1985 season. The floundering franchise immediately became a playoff team upon Jordan’s arrival and in 1988 they won their first postseason series of the new era. The 1989 Chicago Bulls took a big next step, making it all the way to the conference finals.

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Jordan, at the age of 25, averaged 33 points/8 rebounds/8 assists per game, all while shooting an efficient 54 percent. He was a first-team All-Star (Magic Johnson won the MVP award) and first-team All-Defense. Scottie Pippen was still in the developing phase of his career at age 23, but was now a solid contributing player, with a 14/6/4 nightly average.

The Bulls had a steady forward in Horace Grant and two stable guards who knew their roles. Sam Vincent was a distributor and Craig Hodges could hit the three-ball. The big questions marks about this team though, were not about the supporting cast, but the impact of a major trade that went down before the season.

Charles Oakley had not only been the power forward, but was effectively Jordan’s bodyguard. Opponents knew if hard fouls—which were allowed with much more frequency than is the case today—were administered to Jordan, than the fierce Oakley was going to deliver payback.

Jordan valued what Oakley did for him, and wasn’t necessarily pleased when the enforcer was traded to the New York Knicks for Bill Cartwright. What the Bulls lost in law enforcement they gained in strength in the middle—Cartwright was a pure center at a time when that position was much more valued than is the case today. He was also a veteran presence on a young team at age 31 averaged 12 points/7 rebounds per game.

Chicago was relatively slow out of the gate. They lost their opener 107-94 at Detroit, the defending Eastern Conference champs and there was a four-game losing streak out West. But the Bulls also got home wins over the Celtics and Bucks.

Boston would fade this year, but at the time they were still the decade’s dominant team in this conference, while Milwaukee was, and continued to be a steady playoff team. And no qualification or explanation of Chicago’s 116-103 win over the two-defending champion Los Angeles Lakers was needed.

The Bulls were 15-12 at the New Year and then for three months started to play consistent basketball, marked by occasional bursts. They had a six-game winning streak in January, a five-game string in February and won six in a row in March. They were primed for a good playoff seed before the homestretch of the regular season in early April went awry.

Chicago dropped six in a row, including two to Detroit, again the conference frontrunner. The Bulls finished the regular season 47-35 and ended up as the 6-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers were awaiting in the first round. The Cavs won 57 games and were widely considered the biggest threat to Detroit in the East. Cleveland had an outstanding “Big Three” of Mark Price at the point, Ron Harper on the wing and Brad Daugherty in the middle.

All three averaged 18-19 ppg per game. Price was third-team All-NBA. Daugherty also got nine rebounds a night. Harper’s athleticism and defensive skill made him a valued commodity, so much so that he ended up in Chicago with Jordan for the late 1990s run of championships. And if that weren’t enough, how about power forward Larry Nance, with his 17/9 per-game average? The NBA world was thinking two rounds ahead to that Cleveland-Detroit battle in the conference finals.

Jordan immediately put Cleveland on notice in the opener, knocking down 31 points and dished out 11 assists. Daugherty was held to nine points, Chicago led by twenty after three quarters and won 95-88. Even though Harper was more than a match for Jordan in Game 2–31 points to 30 for His Airness—in a 96-88 Cavs win—Chicago had seized homecourt and in what was then a best-of-five first round, could close out back in the Windy City.

When Michael went off for 44 points in Game 3, while Price shot a miserable 1-for-12, it looked like the Bulls were ready to do just that in a 101-94 win. Jordan did what he could in Game 4 to seal the deal, dropping 50, but Cleveland’s four great players played their best collective game of the series. The Cavs survived 108-105 in overtime. Jordan would have to do it on the road.

Game 5 became the first of what would be many heroic Jordan last-shot efforts. He had already scored 42 points when Chicago had the ball in the closing seconds down 100-99. He added two more, hitting a jumper at the buzzer to win the series. Even in a career that would ultimately include six championships and Finals-winning jumpers, the highlight of this one has stood the test of time. Lost in the shuffle is that Chicago forced Price into seven turnovers, a key reason they were in position for Jordan to win it in the end.

Another team with 50-plus wins was up next. The New York Knicks won 52 games and were the 2-seed ahead of Cleveland by virtue of having won the Atlantic Division (the league was then comprised of just two divisions per conference). Rick Pitino had a made himself a hot name in coaching when he took Providence to the 1987 Final Four and cashed that into the Knicks job.

New York was anchored by center Patrick Ewing, who averaged 23/9, along with four blocks and was the second-best center in the league behind Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston. Mark Jackson, the future coach and TV analyst, was brilliant at the point with 17 points/5 rebounds/9 assists. Johnny Newman and Gerald Wilkins were solid players on the wings.

And in the unlikely event anyone had forgotten, the Knicks had this power forward named Oakley, who averaged a 13/11 through the regular season and might have had a bit of payback on his mind.

But it was Cartwright who delivered payback to his old team in the opener. He grabbed 14 rebounds, while Oakley was a non-factor. Jordan had a magnificent all-around game, with a 34/10/12 triple-double. It took overtime, but Chicago won it 120-109 and had once again wrested away homecourt advantage to start a series.

Jordan was held to 15 in Game 2, while the Knicks shot 55 percent in a 114-97 Bulls loss. But back in the Windy City, Chicago blew Game 3 open in the second quarter. Jordan’s line was 40/15/9 and this time it was Grant on the boards, with eleven rebounds. The final was 111-88. Jordan was at it again in Game 4, pouring in 47 points and the Bulls broke open a close game late, winning 106-93. They were one win from the conference finals.

That win didn’t come on the road in Game 5, as the Knicks again shot well and got big games from Ewing and Jackson. The 121-114 final was respectable, but it was the third quarter when the game got away from Chicago. It set up a big battle in Game 6, the Bulls’ chance to put it away at home.

The game was worthy of the stakes. Both teams shot over 50 percent. But like the decisive game in Cleveland, turnovers played a role. Chicago forced twenty of them. Like the decisive game in Cleveland, Jordan was unstoppable. He had 42 points as the game was tied 111-111 in the closing minutes. And like the decisive game in Cleveland, Jordan had last-second magic—this time it was at the foul line as his two free throws with four seconds left were the difference.

Detroit was not only the best team in the NBA, with a 63-19 record, they were also a specific thorn in Chicago’s side. The Pistons won all six head-to-head meetings with the Bulls during the 1988-89 regular season. With their amazing depth and defensive focus, they were the hardest possible opponent for a team still essentially built on one player to beat.

Chicago came closer than might have been expected. They again stole a road Game 1, winning 94-88 behind 32 from Jordan. But the warning signs were there—Jordan had shot 10-for-29, making the points inefficient. For a brief moment it looked like it might not matter—after Detroit won Game 2, Jordan had a spectacular Game 3. He scored 46 points and led a rally from eleven down in the fourth quarter to win 99-97. But that was the last win of the year.

Detroit could not only defend, they could rebound, with a frontcourt that included Dennis Rodman, John Salley, Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer. In two of the final three games, they won the battle of the boards decisively, including Games 4 & 6 in Chicago. Jordan wasn’t able to get unleashed and in Game 5 at Detroit was only able to get eight shots from the floor. The final scores were 86-80, 94-85 and 103-94 as the Pistons closed out the series.

There was no shame in the loss—Detroit went on to win the first of what would be two straight NBA championships. Chicago was in what would be the first of two straight Eastern Conference finals and we know they were a lot of rings in their future.

What we didn’t know in the immediate aftermath of this season was that new leadership was coming. Doug Collins had been the coach during Jordan’s early years and was widely respected around the league—as he is today as an ESPN analyst. It was a considerable surprise when Collins was replaced with Phil Jackson. Although we’d have to say that the move worked out pretty well—the first of those six championships with Jordan, Pippen and Phil was just two years away.