The 1996 NBA Finals pit the Chicago Bulls against the Seattle SuperSonics. While Seattle was a really good team led by Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, the Bulls had just won 72 games during the regular season and seemed all but assured to win a ring, something that was a game away from confirmation when they went up 3-0 in the Finals.
A major reason why Chicago was one game away from a sweep, of course, was the stellar play of Michael Jordan. Curiously, Sonics coach George Karl decided against putting Gary Payton, perhaps the best perimeter defender in NBA history, on Jordan, telling Payton that he was more valuable as a scorer and that having him guard Jordan would tire him out.
“But we got down 3-0,” Payton recalled during episode eight of The Last Dance. “I was mad. I said, ‘F*ck what you’re talkin’ ‘bout, George, I’m guarding him, whatever you say.’ I said, ‘You can’t control this no more.’”
The move worked, as Jordan had a pair of off nights and Seattle took the next two games in the series, forcing it to move back to Chicago for a Game 6. Payton explained how he guarded Jordan successfully over those two games, and gave a pretty insightful answer.
“A lot of people back down to Mike,” Payton said. “I didn’t. I made it a point, I said just tire him out, tire the f*ck out of him, you just gotta tire him out. And I kept hitting him and banging him and hitting him and banging him, it took a toll on Mike, it took a toll. And then Phil started resting him a little bit, and then the series changed and I wish I could’ve did it earlier, I don’t know if the outcome would’ve been different, but it was a difference with me guarding him and beating him down a little bit.”
The Last Dance is nothing if not a medium through which Michael Jeffrey Jordan can have strong, visceral reactions to things that occurred decades ago. As such, he was shown this clip from Payton and began making silly faces and laughing hysterically before giving a remarkably dismissive response.
Michael Jordan is very entertained by Gary Payton's breakdown pic.twitter.com/dh7GCEBJCm
— Rob Lopez (@r0bato) May 11, 2020
“The Glove!” Jordan said. “I had no problem with The Glove. I had no problem with Gary Payton. I had a lot of other things on my mind.”
Jordan was candid about how it did take a toll on him that this was his first full season and attempt at winning the NBA Finals since his father’s passing. The clip of him cracking up is obviously extremely funny, perhaps the funniest individual moment of the entire series. Having said that, putting Payton on Jordan did lead to his numbers dropping off a bit — MJ averaged 31 points, 5.3 rebounds, five assists, and two steals per game while shooting 46 percent from the field and 50 percent from three in games 1-3. Then, in the ensuing three games, Jordan went for 23.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists on 36.7 percent shooting from the field and 11.1 percent shooting from three.