Michael Jordans Toughest Test – Bulls vs Jazz 97 Finals
It’s been thrown around a lot lately about how “Jordan and The Bulls” had “little to no competition” in the NBA Finals. What B.S. In 91, they went up against a 31 year old Magic Johnson, one year removed from claiming his 3rd MVP award. The next season was a showdown with Drexler, the runner-up for the MVP to Jordan. In 93, it was Barkley’s turn, and despite him winning the regular season MVP award, he too would endure a similar fate. After Jordan’s 18 month absence due to his father being murdered, it was the Sonics, led by the explosive duo of Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton (who was the defensive player of the year).
This leads us all the way to 1997. Malone was at his best offensively after years of fine-tuning his skills. He was deadly in the pick and roll with Stockton. He could catch and shoot for 20 feet. He could face up. He could post up. He was a beast on the break. And in addition to all of that, he was a willing and capable passer. And speaking of passing, Stockton was rewriting record books from a passing standpoint. Malone ended up retiring with the second most points in league history, and Stockton had the most assists. Forget these two being top 2 or 3 at their positions of all time, when it comes to sheer skills, they were both almost second to none. Plus you had had Jerry Sloan coaching them, former all-star Jeff Hornacek providing scoring and spacing, and Byron Russell was emerging as one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA along with becoming a capable shooter and offensive player himself.
So how good was Utah? In 97, they took care of the Clippers in one of the biggest mismatches in playoffs history, then crushed Shaq and Eddie Jones in the 2nd round, before dismissing the Rockets with Olajuwon, Drexler and Barkley. In 98, they beat the same Rockets team in the first round, then the Spurs with Duncan and Robinson, and swept Shaq and Kobe and Eddie Jones. If you’re keeping count, that’s 12 (!) hall of fame players they eliminated in a 2 year run to get to the finals. And against the Bulls, man, did they push them to the brink.
In 97, it took Malone missing two last-minute foul shots and Jordan burying a jumper to knock them off in game 1. Chicago did serve them up in game 2, but the Jazz returned the favor in game 3. Game 4 was going the Bulls way until John Stockton turned the series on its head with one of the most clutch series of plays you’ll ever see. He made a 30 footer to cut the lead in half, stole the ball from MJ, and threw one of the greatest passes in league history to a streaking Malone to seal the victory. The series was tied at 2, and it took one of the biggest gut-checks of all time with Jordan’s flu-game performance to put the Bulls back in control of the series. In game 6, Jordan delivered big-time again, but the Jazz had to feel like they had this game until the final minutes again. In fact, if you take out the game 2 blowout, the other 3 losses for Utah in that series, the Jazz led in 129 of the 144 minutes played.
So if anyone tells you that Chicago did not face legitimate competition in the NBA finals, they don’t know basketball. It took the greatest team of all time to deny this Utah team a championship, and even then, the Jazz gave them all they could handle.