Originally published June 1, 1998.
The outcome had been decided, the much-anticipated rematch with the Utah Jazz assured and fans clad in red and black across the country finally could exhale.
But as his Bulls teammates celebrated in the frontcourt during a stoppage in play in the final seconds, Michael Jordan was alone in the backcourt. He was slumped over, hands on his knees, and took a deep breath — a statement about how much energy he had expended and how much of a challenge the Indiana Pacers presented.
Throughout the Eastern Conference finals, the Pacers had proved to be a worthy opponent, and Game 7 was no different. Indiana battled until the final minute before the Bulls finally escaped with an 88-83 victory Sunday night to advance to the NBA Finals for the third consecutive season.
“I was tired. That’s what it was,” Jordan said afterward, recalling the moment. “Today was just lay everything on the basketball court. Tomorrow we can rest. Today we have to win, whatever it takes. That’s all that matters.”
And it took just about every ounce of effort the Bulls had left in their old bones to survive a subpar shooting performance and another aggressive effort from the Pacers.
But in the end, the little things were the difference. The Bulls used their quickness to get to rebounds and loose balls, and that was enough — just barely — to get them to their sixth Finals in the last eight years.
Game 1 of the Finals is set for Wednesday night in Salt Lake City.
“I can’t say that the best team won, but we came out on top,” said Scottie Pippen, paying the Pacers the ultimate respect.
“They came out and played very hard throughout this series. They’ve been here before. They were very poised and confident that they could come here and get a win today.
“I can say the best team won, but they gave us a lot. Even though we pulled out the win, I think both teams were deserving to go to the Finals.”
Jordan managed to have a big impact even though he didn’t have a good night shooting the ball. He had a game-high 28 points, but was 9-for-25 from the field and 10-for-15 from the line.
Jordan, though, had nine rebounds, eight assists and played tight defense on Reggie Miller (22 points) in the fourth quarter, limiting the Pacers’ sharpshooter to one shot (a miss) in the final 12 minutes.
That’s why the Bulls will be playing in the NBA Finals again.
“That’s why he’s the best player in the league, probably the best player ever,” Pacers coach Larry Bird said. “I know when I was playing and I was struggling with my shot, I tried to help any way I could by passing the ball or going for rebounds, and Michael is no different.”
The only way to describe the game was to say the Bulls survived. They were 29-for-76 (38.2 percent) from the field and 24-for-41 (58.5 percent) from the line, but did manage a 50-34 rebounding edge despite getting only six from Dennis Rodman.
“So what? So what if we shot 38 percent from the field and 59 percent from the line?” Jordan said. “Our defense held strong. Defense wins championships. I think that was very obvious. We banged the boards very hard. When you’re shooting that bad, then you have to go to the boards, and we gave ourselves some extra opportunities.”
Indiana got off to a miserable start in Game 5, falling behind by double digits early, and never made a run to get back in the game. Afterward, Bird ripped his players for being passive.
But this time, the Pacers were aggressive and came out on fire. They made their first eight shots for a 20-7 lead midway through the first quarter. The Bulls rallied in the second quarter for the lead and had a 48-45 halftime advantage.
Toni Kukoc (21 points, 7-for-11) erupted in the third quarter to keep the Bulls on top. He had 14 points in the third on 5-for-5 shooting, 3-for-3 from three-point range, as the Bulls took a 69-65 lead into the fourth.
The Bulls, though, then got off to a shaky start in the fourth quarter. They missed a shot on their first possession, then committed a turnover on the second.
On Indiana’s second possession, the Bulls committed three fouls and Jalen Rose scored four quick points to tie the score at 69 with just under 10 minutes to play. The Bulls continued to fire up bricks on offense, and Rik Smits (13 points) converted a three-point play to give Indiana a 72-69 lead with just under nine minutes remaining.
A couple of minutes later, the Pacers’ lead was 77-74, but Steve Kerr (11 points) tied the score with a three-pointer. Indiana answered as Antonio Davis scored for a 79-77 lead with just under six minutes left.
But that proved to be the Pacers’ last lead. Jordan, who was driving to the basket throughout the game, especially in the fourth quarter, was fouled by Derrick McKey and made both free throws to tie the score. Pippen (17 points) then gave the Bulls the lead for good with an 18-footer.
But what decided this game was the Bulls’ play on the defensive end. After Davis’ basket, the Bulls forced turnovers on consecutive possessions. The Bulls had a chance to stretch the lead, but Jordan missed a pair of free throws with about four minutes left.
After another Indiana miss, Luc Longley hit an 18-footer — his only basket — on a pass from Jordan to make it 83-79.
The teams then traded points, and the Bulls took an 87-83 lead into the final two minutes. But then the Bulls made all the little plays to win the game, grabbing rebounds and loose balls and playing solid defense to keep Indiana scoreless.
“It was a hard-fought victory,” Jordan said. “It’s about heart, and I think you saw a lot of heart out on the basketball court. It was a great effort. It’s truly a championship team in terms of finding ways to win and making it happen.”