Last night, LeBron James became the sole proprietor of a rather impressive stat line. For the 74th time in his postseason career, James tallied at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists, a notch even more mind-boggling when realizing he’s played 151 playoff games. In other words, 49% of his playoff resume he posted said numbers. The distinction moved him ahead of Michael Jordan for the most all-time.
And speaking of Mike and the Bulls, May 27 represents a landmark day for basketball nerds. It’s the day Chicago vanquished a dynasty and toe-tagged another before it even got started. Ready to hop in the way back machine? Let’s go.
May 27, 1991
A couple of weeks back, NBA Entertainment put together the brilliant Bad Boys 30 For 30. Documenting the journey of perhaps the most hated team in NBA history, a high-point the film centered around the Pistons’ legendary battles with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
The story isn’t exactly classified information. Detroit’s infamous “Jordan Rules” turned the postseason into a little shop of horrors for the now widely-accepted “greatest of all-time.” They didn’t play fair. They relished in the fact Jordan, Phil Jackson and the Bulls went as far as going to David Stern and the powers that be to consider rule changes to limit Detroit’s jailhouse tactics. And they played with an arrogance and intimidation factor that left Chicago on the short end of the stick for three consecutive springs, prompting Jordan himself to accept reality ending his career with no championship hardware was a possibility.
By the time the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals rolled around, the writing was on the wall. Detroit was an older team, visibily showing signs of fatigue resulting in three consecutive Finals appearances and crippling Jordan’s Bulls, Magic’s Lakers and Larry’s Celtics in the process. Chicago was hungry. Chicago absolutely despised Detroit. Plus, Chicago had the best player in the world coming into his prime and Scottie Pippen was migraine-free.
Game 4 of the 1991 East Finals was played on May 27, 1991. It wasn’t enough for the Bulls to beat the Pistons on their home floor. Nailing the coffin shut was an obsession. Jordan and the Bulls played the media angle prior to the game, going as far as implying the Pistons were bad for basketball. Chicago closed the deal and by the fourth quarter the game was all but in doubt.
Cue the infamous “walk out” by Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and the Pistons. Cue the bad blood Zeke has drawn for the next 20+ years since (which isn’t totally fair because he’s literally the second best point guard ever and it’s like some forget he ever played basketball). Cue a run through the 1990s that has since become the holy grail for most modern NBA fans. Cue the end of a reign of terror in basketball where the “bad guys” were the king of the hill.
The Chicago Bulls advanced to their first NBA Finals 23 years ago today. And for better worse, depending how the prism is viewed, literally, nothing was the same.
May 27, 1996
Fast forward exactly five years later. The Bulls were already owners of their own three-peat, making them one of the NBA’s glory franchises. And yet, in the spring of 1996, they still had a point to prove. Chicago had just completed the greatest regular season run in history winning 72 of a possible 82 games. Michael Jordan took home 1996 MVP.
And somehow, another team in the Eastern Conference appeared set to dictate the course of the league for years to come. Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and the Orlando Magic defeated the Bulls 4-2 in the 1995 semifinals only to be swept in the Finals at the hands of a baptism by Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets. To Orlando’s credit, however, they forever hold the distinction of being the last team to upset a Jordan/Pippen-led Bulls squad.
But for all we knew at the time, Shaq and Penny were the next Magic and Kareem. They were marketing darlings who helped the league remain afloat during Jordan’s baseball sabbatical. They were the equivalent to what the Sonics represented in the West. Then, in three short years, everything ended. A sweep in the 1996 Eastern Finals completed the cypher of righting a wrong a year in the making for Chicago. And to pour salt in the wound, Jordan captured MVP of in San Antonio only three months earlier at the All Star Game. Shaq felt he was robbed. That’s because he was.
With a chance to prove otherwise, Orlando nutted up and what appeared to be a clash of the titans-like battle for a trip to the Finals looked more like a father beating his son in the driveway. The Magic were swept for the third consecutive season. Dennis Rodman threw Shaq under the bus, “He’ll be a great player…someday. He can talk all the trash he wants to, but if he wants to go home with a trophy, he better learn how to win and how to get his game together. Right now his game is totally off.”
The Magic imploded weeks later when O’Neal joined the Lakers and another dynamic young guard in Kobe Bryant (another discussion altogether). But for the Bulls, the series marked their second time in a half decade a juggernaut was read their last rights.
So happy anniversary, Bulls fans. Even if you weren’t aware it was an anniversary in the first place.