The 1996 Chicago Bulls were a team on a mission. It was the first full season since Michael Jordan’s return from his hiatus playing minor league baseball in the Chicago White Sox system. Jordan’s return late in the 1995 season was too late to get in rhythm and the Bulls were ousted by the Orlando Magic.
In ’96, Chicago set a new league record by winning 72 games in the regular season. Jordan averaged 30 ppg and won the MVP award. Scottie Pippen kicked in 19 points/6 rebounds/6 assists.
Dennis Rodman, now 34-years-old, was brought in for his rebounding prowess and pulled down 15 boards a night.
Chicago rolled through the first two rounds and the playoffs and then turned an anticipated rematch with Orlando in the conference finals into an anti-climactic sweep.
The Seattle Sonics hadn’t been to the Finals since their back-to-back appearances in 1978 and 1979, the latter of which saw them win the title. Shawn Kemp was the lead man this time around, averaging 20 points/11 rebounds, Gary Payton knocked 19 ppg, with Detlef Schremph and Hersey Hawkins combining for 33 additional points per game.
Seattle eliminated the two-time defending champion Houston Rockets in the second round, and then won a seven-game conference finals over the Utah Jazz of Karl Malone and John Stockton. With a 64-win regular season and this kind of playoff resume, the Sonics were a worthy adversary on Chicago’s last step to greatness.
The opening game in Chicago was a tight one for three quarters and the Bulls held a narrow two-point lead. But Payton couldn’t get his game untracked, while Jordan shot 9-for-18 and scored 28 points. The dam eventually broke and Chicago won 107-90.
Payton’s struggles continued in Game 2, as he settled for 13 points for the second straight game. Jordan scored 29, while Rodman dominated the glass to the tune of 20 rebounds. It was a good game, but Chicago got a lead, and held on for the 92-88 win.
Now the series shifted to Seattle for the middle three games–the NBA used a 2-3-2 format for the Finals only in the years from 1985 to 2013. But the first Finals game in the Pacific Northwest in seventeen years turned into the MJ show. Jordan poured in 36 points, and the Bulls did not allow Seattle fans a hope for getting back into the series. Chicago won the first quarter 34-16 and coasted home, 108-86.
With two home games still in their back pocket, Chicago backed off the gas pedal, and Seattle won a 107-86 blowout behind a 25 points/11 rebounds game from Kemp in Game 4. The celebration was further delayed when Seattle controlled the fourth quarter of Game 5 and won 89-78.
Pippen had a rough game in the fifth game, shooting 5-for-20. But he and the rest of the supporting cast would help pick up Jordan when the series went back to the Windy City for Game 6. Seattle’s defense caused Jordan fits, as he shot 5-for-19 from the field, though the MVP was able to get to the line twelve times.
In the meantime, Chicago enjoyed an edge from the three-point stripe. Pippen hit 3-for-7 from behind the arc, while Ron Harper connected on 2/5. And in a defensive game, there were a lot of rebounds to be had. Rodman grabbed 19 of them, leading the Bulls to a decisive edge on the glass. With their 87-75 win, the celebration could finally begin.
It was just the beginning for another Chicago run, as they would win three straight NBA titles for the second time in Jordan’s career. It was the ending for Seattle–the franchise wouldn’t make the Finals again until 2012, and by that time they were named the Oklahoma City Thunder.