The 1998 Chicago Bulls: Michael Jordan’s Grand Finale
Michael Jordan and the 1998 Chicago Bulls were after their sixth championship ring, and their second three-peat. Jordan, now a 15-year veteran, and sidekick Scottie Pippen, had just enough gas in the tank to survive strong challenges from the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals.
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Jordan averaged 29 ppg in the regular season and won the MVP award, while Pippen knocked down 19 ppg and the Bulls got valuable rebounding help from Dennis Rodman. After that, it was left to Toni Kukoc on the wing and Luc Longley down low to try and kick in some scoring help.
It was enough for Chicago to go 62-20, earn the top seed in the East and roll through two playoff rounds against the New Jersey Nets and Charlotte Hornets with just a single loss.
The Pacers would be a much tougher out. They had a low post threat in Rik Smits, and an able backcourt of Mark Jackson and Reggie Miller. The former was a great playmaker and future head coach in the league. The latter was merely one of the great three-point shooters of all time.
Chicago’s defense locked down Miller in the first two games while Jordan scored a combined 72 points and the Bulls held serve at home. Indiana answered with a pair of two-point wins on their home floor, as Miller got going with 28 points in Game 3 and Smits ate up the Bulls down low in Game 4.
The fifth game was the one lopsided game of the series, as Chicago coasted to a 19-point win, but Indiana answered with one more barnburner win at home, in spite of a poor shooting night from Miller. It set the stage for an epic Sunday night battle in old Chicago Stadium.
Jordan and Pippen only shot a combined 15/43, but Kukoc stepped up with 21 points and Steve Kerr came off the bench to hit a trio of three-pointers. Chicago survived 88-83 and was going back to the Finals.
The Bulls had survived a stiff challenge from the Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals, and this time around Utah had homecourt advantage. Just as Jordan and Pippen were reaching the end of the line, so was the great Jazz duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone.
Chicago was able to steal a road win in Game 2 when Jordan scored 37 points while Malone did little and the series went to the Windy City for the middle three games knotted 1-1.
Game 3 made it look like the Finals wouldn’t return west. Chicago’s 96-54 win set a record for fewest points allowed in a Finals game and largest margin of victory. The Bulls won a more competitive 86-82 battle in Game 4, but then missed their chance to close at home. An 83-81 win over Utah ended when Jordan missed a three-pointer to win the championship.
In Chicago’s first three-peat, they had missed a chance to close out the Phoenix Suns at home in the 1993 NBA Finals and went on the road to win an epic Game 6. History was set to repeat itself.
The Jazz led 86-83 in front of a wild Delta Center crowd and were poised to force a seventh game in the closing minute. Then Jordan put the finishing touches on his legacy. He scored on a layup. On the ensuing defensive possession, he stripped Malone.
Jordan brought the ball over halfcourt with no one doubting who would take the final shot. He backed down defender Byron Russell and pulled up on a perimeter jumper around the top of the key. Swish. Championship number six.
It was Jordan’s last shot as a Chicago Bull, and though he would later attempt a short, ill-fated comeback with the Washington Wizards, the image of him elevating over Russell remains one of the great enduring memories in all of sports.