The Chicago Bulls had rolled to championships in 1991 and 1992 that managed to shut up media types who pontificated that Michael Jordan wasn’t the type of player who could win a title (for younger readers, this really was a dominant media theme in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I trust those writers are hidden under a rock somewhere today). The 1993 Chicago Bulls faced a different challenge.
Jordan and teammate Scottie Pippen joined the first “Dream Team”, the collection of NBA players who would compete in the 1992 Summer Olympics. After blowing their way through Barcelona to the gold medal, both stars had some wear and tear on them, having missed the customary offseason.
As a result, the 1993 Chicago Bulls perhaps didn’t push quite as hard in the regular season and consequently finished with “only” 57 wins, behind the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference and the Phoenix Suns overall.
Along with the Jordan and Pippen duo, the Bulls had B.J. Armstrong running the show at the point, with power forward Horace Grant being the key man underneath. These four all averaged more than 30 minutes a game, while no one else averaged more than 20. Coach Phil Jackson rotated veteran Bill Cartwright along Stacey King and Scott Williams in the center spot.
In the NBA playoffs, Chicago rolled through the first two rounds, going 7-0 against Atlanta and Cleveland (the first round was best-of-five). While New York and Phoenix both advanced, neither was dominant, particularly the Suns, who barely escaped the first round.
What this did was give some early credence to the theory that the Bulls were the best team in waiting—not just on the grounds that the defending champ is the team to beat, but for the fact they had to take it a little easier during the regular season with 40 percent of their starting lineup having played all summer. While we should note that New York center Patrick Ewing and Phoenix forward Charles Barkley also went to Barcelona, they didn’t have a teammate with them as Jordan did.
The Eastern Conference Finals began in New York and it wasn’t an auspicious beginning. The Knicks got wins of 98-90 and 96-91 and put Chicago’s back to the wall as the series reverted to the Windy City. Game 3 got out of hand in more ways than one—the Bulls won by twenty points, and the Knicks chose to respond by picking fights in the second half.
With everyone getting more than a little testy—the teams had played a seven-game series in the conference semi-finals one year earlier—Jordan did what he always did best. He took over, scored 54 points and led the way to a 105-95 win that tied the series.
Game 5 is on the list of the top NBA playoff games ever played, primarily because of the way it finished. Clinging to a one-point lead, the Bulls watched Knicks forward Charles Smith grab repeated rebounds. Just as repeatedly, Smith’s shots were blocked. New York fans insist to this day Smith was fouled. To Chicago fans it’s one of the great moments of the first Jordan Dynasty. It preserved what would be a 97-94 win and Chicago closed it out at home in Game 6.
The Bulls had answered the bell against a team that had what they lacked—a truly dominant center in Ewing, a 24-point scorer and 12-rebound a game man, continued their mastery of the Knicks and now took aim at Barkley, who won the MVP award in 1993.
This was to be the year that Barkley got his elusive championship ring. The Suns were deeper than the Bulls, with seven players averaging in double digits. They had a top-caliber point guard in Kevin Johnson and Danny Ainge, a veteran of the Celtics’ 1984 and 1986 championship teams (and the front-office architect of another Celtic title in 2008) gave a veteran presence off the bench. It hadn’t stopped from the Suns from struggling in the playoffs though. After the first-round scare they had been pushed to seven games in the conference finals by the Seattle Supersonics (today’s Oklahoma City Thunder). And the Bulls came ready to go in the first two games out west, winning both.
Game 2 was a great battle between Jordan and Barkley, who each scored 42 points, but Pippen preserved a 111-108 win when he blocked Ainge’s final three-point attempt.
With the next three games in Chicago, this series looked all but over. But Phoenix miraculously pulled out a triple-overtime battle in Game 3. It was the longest NBA Finals game since 1976, one that also involved the Suns, against the Celtics. In that ’76 game, Phoenix coach Paul Westphal was a player. Westphal lost the game as a player. As a coach, his team survived Jordan’s 44 points in a 129-121 final.
Three nights later in Game 4 Jordan restored order with a big 55-point showing in a 111-105 win. Once again this series was sure to end in the Windy City. And once again, the Suns had either ideas. Barkley hit the glass in Game 5 to the tune of 17 rebounds and Phoenix snuck out with a 108-98 win.
In a league where homecourt edge too often equates an automatic win, the road team was 4-1 in this series. Small consolation to Chicago who would have to find a way to win in the desert.
Game 6 was an NBA Finals Classic. On a Sunday afternoon, in front of a raucous crowd, the Suns led 98-94 late in the game and it seemed a Game 7 was inevitable. At least NBC, broadcasting the series, with Marv Albert handling play-by-play, had to hope that was the case.
Then the Bulls scored, came up with a defensive stop and brought the ball across midcourt trailing by two. Unexpectedly, it wasn’t Jordan or even Pippen who got the ball.
John Paxson, a 32-year old reserve from Notre Dame went to the left corner, was fed the ball and drilled a three-pointer with second remaining. It sealed a third straight title and made the Bulls the first time to three-peat since the Red Auerbach-era Celtics.
The chances for a grand slam the following year were ended when Jordan decided to do a two-year stint trying to play minor league baseball. After he came back, the Bulls again won three in a row from 1996-98.