Michael Jordan’s brief retirement from the NBA to go play minor league baseball following the 1993 season had shocked the sports world. Less shocking was MJ’s decision to come back, after handling the curve ball proved to be a bigger challenge than handling NBA defenses. Jordan returned just prior to the 1995 NBA playoffs and his arrival set the stage for an anticipated showdown with the Orlando Magic of Shaquille O’Neal.
The Bulls were the 5-seed in the Eastern Conference bracket and beat the Charlotte Hornets in the first round. Orlando, with not only Shaq, but guard Anfernee Hardaway, was seen as the new rising power in the NBA and held the top seed in the East. The Magic knocked out the Boston Celtics in four games—the first round was then a best-of-five—to set up the Shaq vs. MJ battle.
After Orlando held serve in Game 1, the Bulls took homecourt advantage with a vintage Jordan performance in Game 2. He knocked down 17-of-30 from the floor and scored 38 points, as Chicago won 104-94.
But the Magic came back strong on Chicago’s home floor in Game 3. In spite of Jordan drilling 40 and doing with efficiency (15-of-31 from the floor), Orlando had better balance. Shaq had a 28 points/10 rebounds night, and power forward Horace Grant—who had been a part of Chicago’s championship run from 1991-93—took revenge on his old team with an 18/14 night. The Bulls evened the series in Game 4, but now they needed to get another win in Orlando.
Game 5 back in Florida was like a reprise of Game 3—Jordan’s brilliance was being offset by a deeper, more balanced, Orlando lineup. Shaq was a beast inside, with 23 points/22 rebounds. Grant had another big game, posting a 24/11 and sharpshooting guard Dennis Scott nailed 22 points. Orlando used a big third quarter to win 103-95.
The Jordan return wasn’t playing out the way a Hollywood scriptwriter would have intended, and it reached its finale in Game 6. This time, Jordan failed in a big moment, shooting an erratic 8-of-19 and being “held” to 24 points. Orlando got 20-plus from Shaq, Hardaway and Scott and left Chicago Stadium in silence as they won 108-102 and clinched the series.
Orlando went on to defeat the Indiana Pacers to win the Eastern Conference. The Magic story didn’t end…well, it didn’t end magically, losing the NBA Finals in four straight to the Houston Rockets. And Shaq never did win a title in Orlando. But knocking out Jordan and finishing the job on his home floor in the 1995 NBA playoffs is about as good a consolation prize as the league can offer.