We Reminisce: When Gary Payton Put The Clamps On Michael Jordan In The NBA Finals

This year’s Basketball Hall of Fame class was officially announced yesterday, and taking his rightful place among the game’s greats in September will be Gary Payton. The Glove holds the distinction of being the only point guard ever to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, an honor given to him for his suffocating work during the 1995-96 season. It was, however, his work that postseason that immortalized his defensive reputation.

June, 1996 CE. “Tha Crossroads” by Bone Thugs is on top of the charts, Filegate has just hit the Clinton Administration, I’m not yet an adolescent, and MJ is in the thick of his first full post-baseball NBA season. To be specific, postseason. To be even more specific, the NBA Finals.

Jordan drops 28, 29 and 36 in the first three games of the Finals, all Chicago victories. After living in the NBA Finals from ’91 to ’93, Michael and the Bulls declare it’s good to be back. David Stern, Nike, et al. heartily agree. Jordan’s on his way back to Larry O’Brien glory. But if there’s no conflict, no rising action, we’re not reminiscing today.

Enter Gary Payton.

Well, that’s not really accurate. GP had already been on the scene, talkin’ it up, as usual, but only to the tune of two subpar games and then one serviceable showing. After Game 3, one writer described Payton as subdued. Payton? Subdued?

Payton had torn a calf muscle, and so Sonics coach George Karl held off on putting The Glove on His Airness, not wanting to wear Payton out. But sometimes, you just gotta give the people what they want, especially when you’re down 0-3, and you have nothing to lose.

And so, on June 12, Hannah Storm announced to the masses that Gary Payton would be guarding Michael Jordan in Game 4 from the jump, “a matchup many have wanted to see this entire series.” The Glove did not disappoint. Payton aggressively fronted Jordan, even drawing an early offensive foul from Jordan in the first quarter (yes, an offensive foul was called against Michael Jordan). Jordan wound up going 6-for-19, scoring 23 points, his lowest output ever in the Finals up to that point, and was visibly frustrated. On the offensive end, Payton scored 21, including 3-of-6 from downtown (Jordan was 0-for-2 on treys), beat Jordan on off-ball cuts a few times, and dished out 11 assists. The fans at Key Arena were reenergized, and the Sonics lived to see another day.

Two days later, the two teams took to the floor again, and Jordan, despite his refusal to credit Payton, was frustrated by GP again. Jordan was called for an early travel (yes, Michael Jordan was called for a travel), and to add insult to injury, Payton dusted Jordan on a beautiful spin move shortly thereafter. Further developing a nascent theme from Game 4, Jordan struggled from beyond the arc (0-for-4), while Payton seemed to relish every made triple (2-for-6) that much more. It was almost like a game within the game emerged, with Payton goading the hyper-competitive Jordan into taking threes, each Jordan miss a small victory for Payton, each Payton make an affront to Jordan’s refusal to acknowledge him (neither Payton nor Jordan were elite three-point shooters in their careers). In a crucial Seattle fourth quarter run, Jordan was held to just one (missed) shot, and Jordan resorted to finger pointing after the game: “I was getting double-teamed, so I had to move the ball and ask my teammates to make shots. They had a difficult time shooting the ball.”

The series returned to the Windy City for Game 6, and though the Bulls ultimately prevailed, Payton and the Sonics at least made Jordan work, holding him to 22 points on 5-for-19 shooting. Jordan managed to hit a three-pointer early, but was bested once again in that department by Payton, who went 3-for-5 from downtown, compared to Jordan’s 1-for-3. Payton continued to aggressively front Jordan, and anticipated when Jordan’s teammates looked to get him the ball, closing on Jordan so that Jordan’s teammates often didn’t even end up pulling the trigger on their passes. However, the Bulls were in control for most of Game 6, and went on to win their first of three consecutive championships.

Although in the end, the Sonics came up short, Payton’s defense on Jordan cemented his legacy as one of the finest defensive guards the league has ever seen, a legacy that endures in basketball lore to this day. May it ever be so.

Where does GP rank among the best defensive guards of all time?

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