Bloggin' to the Oldies: Seize the Hour
It’s time once again for Bloggin’ to the Oldies, our series on classic NBA games and how they relate to today’s league. For this post, I’ll be looking at the 1991 Finals (specifically Games 1, 3, and 5) between the Lakers and Bulls. Some background for the uninitiated: In Michael Jordan’s first finals, LA won Game 1 on a Sam Perkins triple with 14 seconds left. The Bulls stormed back to win the next four contests, but many of them were close; Game 3 went to OT, and the Lakers were in Game 5 up until the final portion of the 4th.
I might as well start with the best player I’ve ever seen. I’ll save a dissection of Jordan’s exact game for an upcoming post (preview: it involves Kevin Durant)—for now, I’d like to talk about reactions to him. It’s interesting that Marv and Fratello never questioned Jordan’s credentials as the best player in the league. Magic, of course, received a lot of attention from the crew, too, but the general consensus seemed to be that it was only a matter of time before MJ would get his rings. Likewise, when Jordan missed a wide-open 17-footer at the end of Game 1 that would have won the game, the announcers said nothing about him choking. I can’t say how much of that reaction can be explained by MJ finally getting over the Detroit hump, and I know that Jordan already had a reputation for hitting clutch shots, but it’s worth noting just how much slack the announcers gave to someone who hadn’t won a championship at age 28. I doubt that would happen today, and, in fact, you could make an argument that LeBron gets (or at least got up until Game 5 of the Detroit series) unfair criticism for being a poor clutch performer despite having made several game-winners during the 06 Playoffs.
I could talk about Jordan forever, but the other Bulls deserve a huge amount of credit for winning that first championship. As you'd expect, that contribution starts with Scottie Pippen. A long discussion developed in the comments last week at FD about Pippen possibly being more important to the Bulls’ success than Jordan. Like I said in this post, I’m not ready to go that far, but, as Stop Mike Lupica explains, Pippen really doesn’t get enough credit for being how good he was. This was his fourth season, and, while his offensive skills weren’t fully developed yet, his defense is on another level compared to every wing playing today. The only moderately comparable player is Shawn Marion, but Pippen was much, much better in every defensive category. I can comfortably predict that we will never see a defensive tandem on the wings as impressive as Pippen and Jordan again. (I have too many Bulls games to talk about to go into full depth on Pippen right now. There’s a ton to say, though, so I’ll get to all of it eventually.)
I already talked about the 91 Lakers a bit here, but watching one game of this team doesn’t show off their most interesting quality. In that Warriors game, they played at an absolute breakneck speed, scoring close to 100 by the start of the 4th. In the Bulls series, with the same general lineup and substitution pattern, they played much more deliberately, waiting for the less experienced team to make mistakes. Honestly, these games closely resembled recent Spurs-Suns matchups in that Lakers tried to slow the athletically superior team down to a more manageable pace, relying on quality defensive rotations and ball control more than their legitimate scoring ability.
The Lakers might have only won one game, but they were close enough to win in the others that I watched. The fact that they were able to do that just weeks after playing at their top speed against the Warriors speaks to how versatile they were. From what I can tell, that versatility stemmed mostly from every starter’s excellent passing ability; if they needed a shot with the shot clock running down, they could find anyone with even a small opening. If Magic hadn’t contracted HIV, Showtime would’ve slowed down, but I’m willing to bet they would’ve made their fair share of finals.
This was clearly the Bulls’ moment, though. In the first game, they looked relatively unprepared for crunch time, but over the course of the series you can see them become more champion-like. When I use that term, I don’t mean that they got boring—they just looked incredibly comfortable in every situation. In Game 5, they executed much better down the stretch than the Lakers, which is surprising given the Lakers’ superior depth and experience.
A hero of the internet has posted the last few minutes of Game 5 and the entirety of Game 2 on YouTube. That’s a lot to watch, but it’s worth it if you have the time.
Miscellaneous notes on the series: In terms of jersey tightness, Magic was second only to Maurice Lucas. … I was pretty surprised by how impressive Vlade was at such a young age. The passing ability was there, as always, but he actually executed a spin off of Pippen from the high post that led into a free-throw line jumper. Related note: Vlade is the most Euro-looking Euro ever. He has taught Vlad Radmanovic well. … I remembered John Paxson as nothing more than a three-point specialist, but he was a pretty stellar all-around player, too. … The most shocking thing from this series, by far, was that Will Perdue was a generally solid contributor. In Game 1, he came in early, got a huge ovation from the crowd, and immediately scored a few baskets and blocked several shots. Marv couldn’t stop talking about how the Chicago crowd had completely embraced him. … With 10:40 left in the 4th of Game 1, the Lakers were up by 7. Jordan came in from his customary early-quarter rest and had a hand in the next ten points of the game, all of which occurred in two minutes. … AC Green was all energy at this point in his career. Nice to see him putting that sex drive to good use.