With the lockout happening, we're going to take a look back at the 1993 playoffs, arguably the best series of games ever. In our first installment, we pinpoint the moment the Bulls became the favorites again.
Retro NBA diaries are in right now because of the NBA lockout. Everyone needs their basketball fix, and the only way to get it is to watch old games. With a nod to Kelly Dwyer and Matt Moore, I've decided it's worth doing retro diaries throughout the summer (and winter, if necessary).
We're going to focus specifically on the 1993 NBA Playoffs for these. Why the 1993 playoffs? There are several reasons. For one, the 1993 Playoffs are known as one of the best in NBA history, with great games, great series and incredibly compelling storylines. Mostly, though, it's because there are a lot of similarities between the NBA in 1993 and the NBA in 2011. The NBA in 1993 was reaching the height of its renaissance. It was carried by one man (Michael Jordan), but there were other great teams and players that made watching every game compelling. It was the first year the NBA Finals got higher ratings than the World Series. It was a year in which the prohibitive favorite was being doubted because of an underwhelming regular season. Finally, it was a year followed by a major story (Jordan's retirement) that at least temporarily stunted the growth of the game.
Obviously, the ending of the 1993 season was different than the ending of the 2011 season. The Bulls overcame their doubters and won the title, while the 2011 Heat didn't. There was no upstart NBA champion from the West. An all-time great didn't finally get his due. (Note: this faulty analogy works for the '93 Blazers or Suns: take your pick). Jordan eventually returned to the league, and the NBA re-assumed its perch at the top of the sports world until his second retirement. But there are enough similarities for us to run with this exercise, and the way the 1993 Bulls succeeded when the 2011 Heat did not is instructive in its own way.
We begin with Game 1 of the first-round series between the Bulls and the seventh-seeded Atlanta Hawks. It is Friday, April 30, 1993, and it is in this one day where the Bulls go from being afterthoughts to favorites again. As the Bulls are polishing off a blowout win, the New York Knicks, the new East favorite, are struggling to put away the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers in the first game of their series. Meanwhile, a few hours later, the Phoenix Suns, the new favorite for the NBA crown, suffer a shocking loss to the lowly Los Angeles Lakers, who are essentially in the playoffs by default. All it took was one night for the Bulls to regain their swagger.
Our diary begins now.
We're live from Chicago Stadium, which is sadly nearing its last legs. Bob Neal and Hubie Brown are on the call. Neal tends to be pretty subdued except on rare occasions, and Hubie is Hubie.
Just to drive home the point from above, here's the opening monologue for this game, with parenthesis for changes if Neal was talking about the 2011 Heat.
Neal: I don't remember any time in the NBA where a team that won
57 (58) games, Central (Southeast) Division champions, two-time defending World (Offseason) Champions have heard more gloom and doom about their possibilities of repeating (winning the title). If you read Chicago papers (non-Heat writers), and for that matter, national papers (everyone), you wonder if the Bulls (Heat) could even get past the first round (Celtics). Yet they're defending world champions (employing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade). So Hubie Brown, I ask you, as the Bulls (Heat) come in here, can they three-peat (win not one, not two, not three, etc.)? What's wrong with them, or is anything wrong with them?
Brown: I just think that anytime you have
Michael Jordan (LeBron James), you won 57 (58) games, you are the premier road (point differential) team in the Eastern Conference, why not? I think, over the course of the year, they had to overcome some very major problems, and it started with the health. You can see right here. [Bill] Cartwright (Udonis Haslem) needs to play 30 minutes in the big games. [John] Paxson (Mike Miller), relegated to the bench, surgery. Pippen (Wade), the ankle (hamstring), questionable (to start the year). Now, the bench production ... it's down 12 (infinity) points from a year ago, but B.J. Armstrong (Mario Chalmers) is (essentially, because Mike Bibby sucks) in the starting lineup. So don't worry about that.
Neal notes that the Hawks have "played the Bulls tough" during the year, and Brown calls them "dangerous." Only one game was a blowout, and it was thanks to Trent Tucker, who looks very funny.
12:00: The Bulls go with their traditional starting five of B.J. Armstrong, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright. This is the year Armstrong finally took the starting job from Paxson, and he gave them more shooting range and a better handle. The Hawks counter with Mookie Blaylock (in his first year in Atlanta after a trade from the Nets), Stacey Augmon, Kevin Willis, Jon Koncak and the great Dominique Wilkins. Jordan and Wilkins were No. 1 and No. 2 in the NBA in scoring, a fact that will be beaten to death over the course of the series.
11:20 - Augmon's first two possessions: an offensive foul charging into Jordan, and deciding not to put a hand up on a Jordan jumper. If you hear Mark Jackson's voice in your head, you have already lost.
10:15: Crazy sequence: Jordan pitches it ahead to Pippen, who somehow saves it for Jordan, who makes a one-handed catch just for the hell of it and banks in an 18-footer. Neal's response is to say "Put that on a poster," even though Jordan doesn't dunk.
8:45: Cartwright nails a turnaround as Koncak's shoes are glued to the floor. Brown: "You got to shut Billy down." Brown has a history of overrating Cartwright on air because of his history coaching him, which is his one blind spot as an analyst. This is like complaining about Bill Russell's Celtics because they didn't win the 1967 title.
7:14: Wilkins ignores Willis in the post to try to drive right on Pippen. He gets away with a charge and hits a jumper, but still, that's the thing you get with Wilkins sometimes. He's almost like Carmelo Anthony in that he got a bad rep even though he's such a good scorer (you don't do that by accident), but is still a step below the elite because he wasn't a complete player and broke the offense sometimes. He had some great teams that tailored to his strengths and came up just short in the playoffs. This is not one of those teams.
4:04: Wilkins and Willis miss gimmies at the rim, and suddenly the Bulls are on an 8-0 run. The Hawks' default strategy is to post up either Wilkins or Willis. It's working, but they can't convert the good shots they get, and it's only a matter of time until Phil Jackson's double teams do their job. Atlanta calls timeout, and Hubie praises the timeout. Death, taxes, etc.
3:42: Jordan's hit five jumpers already, but Koncak still doesn't step up to contest a wide open 18-footer. Hubie is beside himself. Somehow, Koncak played 11 years in the NBA.
1:14: Jordan has 14 points, all on jumpers, and Koncak still feels comfortable just letting him go wide open into his jump shot on a pick and roll.
0:00: Paxson, in off the bench, hits a fadeaway buzzer beater, and the Bulls suddenly lead by eight after one quarter. Jordan has 18. End of quarters, man. End of quarters. I'm Doug Collins.
11:20: Atlanta's lineup to begin the second quarter: Steve Henson, Paul "Snoop" Graham, Duane Ferrell, Randy Breuer, Adam Keefe. This is not going to end well.
9:45: Breuer has his layup swatted away by Scott Williams. Hubie: "He's 7'4'', and by going parallel to the floor, he made himself 5'6''."
8:32: Will Perdue gets an offensive rebound, which eventually leads to a Paxson jumper. The Bulls now have 572 offensive rebounds in this game. This is not not an exaggeration.
7:05: Willis, who had to leave the first quarter because of foul trouble, picked up his third foul on a Jordan jump shot and needs to sit down again. This is a good time to mention how Willis was probably stuck in the wrong era. He was always very good (he had a three-year stretch where he was a legitimate 18/13 guy), but also always good enough to make you mediocre if he was your best inside player. Today, he could play center and easily be one of the best in the league. Back then, though, he had to play power forward and got lost in the shuffle of great big men.
4:37: Bulls by 14, timeout Hawks. Atlanta has exactly one play that is working: screen-and-roll with Blaylock. Otherwise, they can't get anything going offensively. Constipated coach Bob Weiss is angry.
4:00: Weiss' out-of-timeout strategy response is to run two straight isolations for Augmon against Jordan. Predictably, neither work. In today's terms, this is like running isolations for Tony Allen against LeBron.
3:48: Koncak picks up a charge on a three-on-one. "That's sad," Hubie muses.
3:30: Armstrong clearly travels, but the refs miss it and he gets a three-point play on a bank shot. Bulls by 19.
2:36: Wilkins goes behind the back to shoot a 23-footer that caroms high off the backboard, then picks up his third foul in transition. He just hasn't been the same player since he sat at the beginning of the second quarter. The Bulls are sending double teams and his teammates are spaced horribly on the weakside.
Halftime: Bulls lead, 62-48. It's only that close because Blaylock hit a step-back three, prompting Neal to call him the "Joe Namath of quick releases on a three." I have no clue what that means. I guess Blaylock's three-point shot likes to party.
12:00: So hey, how about those rebounding numbers.
10:23: You guessed it ... two more Bulls offensive rebounds.
9:53: Hawks miss a long jumper, Bulls grab the rebound, run to the other end and score a layup.
9:28: Hawks miss a long jumper, Bulls grab the rebound, run to the other end and score a layup.
9:04: Hawks commit a turnover, Bulls pick it up, run to the other end and hit a three. See, some variety.
8:35: Hawks commit a turnover, Bulls run a half-court set and score. More variety.
7:37: Jordan steals a rebound away from two Hawks, whips a pass to Pippen for a layup, and the Bulls lead by 27. Worth noting: Weiss decided to pull Koncak for Keefe to help his team on the boards, even though Keefe has one rebound in the game. Sums up the night for Atlanta.
6:50: There are three Hawks and one Bull going for the rebound. As you probably guessed, the Hawks were called for a foul and didn't get the board.
5:01: Trent Tucker just grabbed an offensive rebound. This means you, the viewer, are very close to completing your Bulls Offensive Rebound Bingo Card.
3:51: Scott Williams just hit a stepback 17-footer and, with a degree of foresight that nobody could have anticipated, decided to mimic Jason Terry's celebration.
1:05: TNT cuts away to the Knicks-Pacers game, which causes us to miss Jordan do a one-handed pump-fake on Breuer, then surge in for what Neal described as a "backboard-rattling" dunk. When, on replay, it is discovered that Jordan didn't actually break the backboard (I know, right?), Neal says "Actually, Jordan is so good, he doesn't rattle the backboard." I've seen better saves than that.
1:00: It's now a 47-19 rebounding margin for the Bulls.
0.08: Jordan pump-fakes, ducks in and hits a three. He has 32, and the Bulls lead by 30. Hubie compares the sequence to one of those Winchester rifles from "back in the day." That's exactly what I was thinking too.
10:57: Jordan puts the Bulls at the century mark with a 30-foot three-pointer in transition. In 2011, the Bulls' crowd would go crazy because it ensured free Big Macs for everyone. In 1993, they're just mesmerized with Jordan like the rest of us.
9:19: Four red shirts underneath, two more offensive rebounds for the Bulls. I probably don't need to be pointing these things out.
7:45: The scoreboard below shows that Indiana has cut the Knicks' lead to five points in their game. This is the first ominous sign that the Bulls were made out to three-peat. Whereas the Bulls extended their big lead, the Knicks blew it and had to play a closer game than expected in Game 1.
6:30: When Rodney McCray gets two offensive rebound, you should just quit.
4:22: An injury to Williams allows TNT to switch to the Knicks game. The only meaningful thing to come from this is Bob Hill's tie.
0.00: Stacey King waits until the buzzer sounds to launch a three, and that'll do it. The Bulls win, 114-90. The Knicks hold on for a Game 1 win, but it wasn't convincing. A few hours later, the Suns lose. When you think about how the Bulls had enough in reserve to win a third title, think of this game, when they sent a message to the NBA world not to prematurely count them out.