1991 Chicago Bulls vs 2001 Los Angeles Lakers

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The 2001 Lakers and 91 Bulls were a combined 30-3 in their playoff runs. 30 and 3! These records are amplified by the competition that they both went through. The Bulls went through the Knicks (the team that pushed them 7 games the very next year), the 76ers led by Barkley (he should have been MVP the season before), the Bad Boy Pistons who had won back to back titles and were looking to secure a 3-peat, and Magic Johnson’s Lakers. The Lakers also went through some incredible teams. They swept the juggernaut (on paper, at least) Blazers team who had more depth than the team that very nearly knocked off the Lakers in 7 games in the WCF the year prior, Sacramento who nearly beat the Lakers in the next years WCF, the Spurs who had won the championship 2 years prior and seemed to be on a mission to reclaim the title, and the 76ers led by MVP Allen Iverson.

The 91 Bulls two losses were by 2 points to Philly in game 3, and 1 point to the Lakers in game 1 of the Finals. The only loss for the 2001 Lakers was a 6-point loss to the 76ers in overtime of game 1. The fact that they went 30-3 against those teams is incredible, but it is entirely conceivable that both of these teams could have ran the table. Imagine for a minute this match-up if that was the case. How can you make the argument that either team would lose more than 1 game against each other, let alone one of them losing the entire series?

Jordan vs the Air Apparent

Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all time. You can make arguments for other players (Russell, Chamberlain, Magic, Bird, Kareem, etc.), but Jordan’s resume speaks for itself. The scary thing is Jordan’s legacy extends far further than just his resume. Jordan’s intimidation level during his prime was almost biblical, and it extended to everyone who stood in his way, including genuine superstars of the game.

Jordan vs Drexler 92 Finals

“It was like watching a killer on a court, an assassin, who comes to kill you and then cuts out your heart”– Danny Ainge.

Words really can’t do justice to what happened in game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals, but I’ll try my best to add some context. MJ was on top of the basketball world, but the Bulls were looking somewhat shaky in the playoffs. They were pushed to 7 games by the Knicks in the 2nd round, and got caught in a chess match against the Cavs. Despite Jordan and Pippen’s dominance, their run to the finals was their least impressive, going 11-5 against teams that weren’t really considered contenders.

The Blazers, on the other hand, had hit their stride in the playoffs. They had gone 11-4 in the first 3 rounds (Lakers, Suns, and Jazz). Maybe more importantly, Drexler was emerging as a threat to Jordan’s dominance. Drexler was posting numbers of 27 ppg, 7.2 rpg, and 7.7 apg. These numbers paled in comparison to Jordan’s heading into the finals (34 ppg, 6.8rpg, 5.5apg), but it didn’t stop people in the media igniting the comparison between the two players. This was just adding fuel to the fire of the rivalry because of the fact that Portland passed on Jordan with the number 2 pick in the 1984 draft because they already had Drexler. The main argument for Drexler over Jordan was that he was “the superior outside shooter”.

Oh boy.

Game 1 started slowly for Chicago, and Portland (led by Terry Porter), jumped out of the gate and made their first 8 field goals. Over the span of 17 minutes, Jordan scored 33 points. Re-read that sentence. 33 points in 17 minutes. I wonder what the p/36 is on that! Of those 33 points, he hits 6 three-pointers in a row. I’m so glad this was on tape because good luck trying to convince anyone that this is what actually took place without the video evidence.

Jordan finished with 35 points in the first half. Drexler? 8 points. Jordan would go on to average 35.8 ppg for the series, while Drexler barely shot 40%. After this series, Drexler was never the same. From the moment that he became a starter in 86, until 92, Drexler averaged 24.3 ppg on nearly 50% shooting. After the 92 finals, he averaged 19.5 ppg on 44% shooting. It’s hard to think that Jordan was the sole reason behind Drexler going from a MVP runner-up to barely an all-star. In 1995, he was traded for Otis Thorpe, a one-time all-star, and it was Houston that had to have their arm-twisted to make the deal.

The most telling thing about this game is how shell-shocked Portland was after this onslaught. I wouldn’t say they gave up in the second half, but they were just completely stunned and they never regained their confidence in the series, and while Portland would recover to get 2 wins, one can easily argue that those victories were more of a result of the Bulls losing their focus than anything the Blazers did.

Honestly, nearly 25 years after it happened, I’m just as stunned writing about it. It just doesn’t seem possible. One of the commentators said that “this is the greatest performance, maybe ever, in the history of this league.” Considering the stage, considering the context, considering the last effects; it’s really hard to argue against that statement.

Does the dream match-up become a nightmare for the Lakers?

The obvious question stemming from this is if a young Kobe has the maturity to handle the pressure of matching up with Jordan. We all remember (or have heard about) the Shaq/Kobe feud during the first two-thirds of the 2001 season that almost imploded the Lakers season. The internal conflict was centred around who was the dominant player of the Lakers; Shaq or Kobe?

Of course, Shaq and Kobe did rectify this situation and the Lakers went on a tear we’ve never before or after. The biggest reason for this was Shaq was re-established as the primary option on offence, and Kobe was a complementary player who would pick and choose his time to attack on the offensive end. The question this all leads to is how will Kobe respond if Jordan starts to tear him up in similar way he did to Drexler or the Suns in 93?

Now it goes without saying that Bryant was a far better defender in 01 than Drexler was in 92, but Kobe was relatively untested defensively during the Lakers three-peat. The one time he did face an offensive talent even remotely close to Jordan in his prime was Iverson in the 01 finals, and Iverson lit him up for 49 points in game 1 and forced the Lakers to defend him with a combination of Derek Fisher and Tyronne Lue. I don’t want to sound dismissive of Iverson’s play in 2001, but if Iverson was capable of doing that, what would Jordan in his prime have accomplished with this matchup? And what impact would that have on Kobe psychologically? Will Kobe take the challenge personally and try to outshine Jordan at the expense of his own team? This becomes an even bigger question when you factor in Jordan’s ability to talk trash and get inside an opponent’s head.

“When you trash-talk, that’s a game. It’s a game of psyching out. They try to take it as a one-on-one competition to me, which totally takes away from their team concept. I know how to play the game, I don’t think they know how to play the game when I’m talking to them.” Michael Jordan

There’s no question in my mind that Kobe’s athleticism and instincts on the defensive end would make Jordan at least work harder to get his points, but it would also place Bryant in a precarious position to pick up fouls. Beyond Bryant, who does the 01 Lakers have to really throw at Jordan? Rick Fox was a tremendous defender, and would neutralise (to a point) Jordan in the post, but keep in mind just how good Jordan was in terms of getting to the basket in his prime. This is a scary matchup for the Lakers.

There are two sides to the ball though.

Of course there are, and Kobe was polished in the playoffs in 2001. There are two things that stand out for me regarding Kobe on offence. 1) Jordan’s defence on Drexler in 92 (held Clyde to 40%), and 2), an aggressive Kobe on the offensive end often had catastrophic results on Shaq’s play on both ends of the floor.

Kobe Bryant 2001 Western Conference Finals

33 PPG (51%FG, 36% 3FG), 7 RPG, 7 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.8 APG

Those numbers are comparable to anything Jordan has ever done in the playoffs, but do we really expect Kobe to have this level of production against Jordan? Once again, look at the job MJ did on Drexler in 92 to get some kind of idea of what kind of a defender Jordan was. I don’t expect Kobe to be as intimidated by MJ as what Drexler was, but as I asked before, can we trust Kobe to not take this match-up personally and try to one up Jordan? If he does go down that path, that might be a worse outcome for the Lakers than him rolling over like Drexler did. The very next series, against Philly, Kobe would be initially matched up with league-MVP, Allen Iverson. I mentioned before how Iverson shredded Kobe and forced Phil Jackson to use Derek Fisher and Tyronne Lue to slow him down. But let’s look at the offensive production for Kobe in that series.

Kobe Bryant 2001 NBA Finals

24.6 PPG (42% FG, 33% 3FG), 5.8 APG

It needs to be noted that he was being guarded by Aaron McKie, Raja Bell, and Jermaine Jones in that series, all of whom were much taller and more physical defenders than the Spurs combo of Antonio Daniels (forced into the starting line-up due to the Derek Anderson injury) and Terry Porter. Despite the significant drop in efficiency, that did not deter Kobe as he took 106 shots in 5 games, which was only 4 less than Shaq who averaged 33 PPG on 57% shooting. Keep in mind that Kobe was never just about winning. It had to be on his terms, and he’d deal with the consequences (which included missing the playoffs or being bounced in the first round). Kobe admitted this years later when asked about what happened with Shaq leaving the Lakers.

“It was never on the cards [Shaq and him staying together]. He had to go. I was a free agent, and there was things that I wanted to do in my career, to take my career to another level, that I was incapable of doing as long as we were playing together. It just wasn’t going to work, so no matter what happened, whether we had won that championship (against Detroit in 2004), with me being a free agent, there just was no way. I had to accept this challenge. I had to see what I could do.” Kobe Bryant

Shaq of course was traded that off-season, and it would be 1428 days before the Lakers won a playoff series again.

Shaq vs who?

Kobe and Shaq seemed to tag-team opponents in 2001. The Bulls obviously have Jordan to slow down Kobe’s production, but who do the Bulls have to neutralise Shaq?

Bulls Big Men: Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant, Scott Williams, Stacey King, Will Perdue, Cliff Levingston

There’s some depth there, but Shaq faced chewed up and spat out much more prolific opposition during his reign of terror in the 2000 and 2001 playoffs.

2000 Playoffs

Vs Sacramento: 29.4 PPG (54% FG, 43%FT), 17.4 RPG, 2.6 BPG

Vs Phoenix: 30.2 PPG (56% FG, 49%FT), 16.2 RPG, 2.6 BPG

Vs Portland: 26 PPG (54% FG, 52%FT), 12.4 RPG, 1.9 BPG

Vs Indiana: 38 PPG (61% FG, 39% FT), 16.7 RPG, 2.7 BPG

2001 playoffs

Vs Portland: 27 PPG (49% FG, 61% FT), 15.7 RPG, 1 BPG

Vs Sacramento: 33.3 PPG (60% FG, 49% FT), 17.3 RPG, 3.3 BPG

Vs San Antonio: 27 PPG (54% FG, 51% FT), 13 RPG, 1.3 BPG

Vs Philadelphia: 33 PPG (57% FG, 51% FT), 15.8 RPG, 3.4 RPG

When you look at this level of production, it’s not difficult to see why Shaq is considered the most dominant player ever. Sacramento had Vlade Divac, Scott Pollard, and Chris Webber to throw at Shaq. Portland had Arvydas Sabonis, Brian Grant, Rasheed Wallace, and Dale Davis. Indiana had Rik Smits, Dale Davis, and Sam Perkins. Philly had defensive player of the year in Dikembe Mutombo. San Antonio had Tim Duncan and David Robinson. If Shaq was this dominant against this level of talent, what would he do to Cartwright/ Perdue/ Scott Williams?

I have zero confidence that the Bulls would be able to slow down Shaq at all during his prime. The only situation is if Pippen and Jordan would be able to help down low as soon as O’Neal put the ball on the floor. The problem for the Bulls is Shaq would often establish position so close to the basket because of his size and strength. It’s not as he if starting 15 feet away from the basket and requiring 4 or 5 dribbles to get to his spot. Usually, he’s at the rim within a dribble, or he’s spinning baseline quickly. Pippen could get there, but his help defence might be completely neutralised by shaq’s style. The only thing the Bulls have in their favour is they have a lot of bodies to throw at Shaq, and each of those bigs have 6 fouls to use and make O’Neal beat them from the line. I know Shaq has a history of saying “he always made [foul shots] when they counted”, but they always counted, and he was a 50% shooter in this period. Make no mistake about it, it was a hindrance to his effectiveness in late game situations. Typically fouling a player is a last-resort, and if that is the best-case scenario for Chicago to contain Shaq, then that tells you how dire of a situation that is.

What about Pippen?

Many fans and experts agree that the emergence of Pippen’s game is what elevated the Bulls from contenders to a dynasty. During the first Bulls 3-peat, Pippen was at his best during the playoffs.

1991 NBA Finals

21 PPG (45% FG), 9.4 RPG, 6.6 APG, 2.4 SPG, 1 BPG

92 Finals

20.8 PPG (49% FG), 8.3 RPG, 7.7 AG, 1.5 SPG, 0.7 BPG

93 Finals

21.2 PPG (44 FG%), 9.2 RPG, 7.7 APG, 2 SPG, 1 BPG

Along with the rest of the basketball public, Jordan noticed that Pippen was not merely a role-player anymore, and a serious argument could be made that he was the second most complete player in the game behind MJ himself.

“Michael returned from Barcelona raving about Scottie’s performance. Before the summer, Michael had regarded Pippen as the most talented member of his supporting cast. But after watching him outplay Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton, and other future Hall of Famers, Michael realised that Scottie was the best all-round player on what many consider the best basketball team ever assembled. Scottie, Michael had to admit, had even outshone him in the several of the games” Phil Jackson

The only drawback to Pippen’s game during this period was his mental toughness. Despite his talent and skills developing, his leadership in critical moments were still questionable. The Bad Boy Pistons still went at him and tried to get in his face. As did Xavier McDaniel during the Knicks series in 1992, and Charles Barkley during the 93 Finals. The epitome of these concerns was reached when Pippen refused to enter the game for the final seconds of a critical playoff game between the Knicks and Bulls in 1994. That season was widely regarded as Pippen’s prime, but without Jordan’s leadership, Pippen was somewhat lost and unable to respond in a pressure situation. Instead of taking the coaches instructions, he snapped and produced one of the most selfish acts we’ve ever seen in NBA history, and if we’re being fair and questioning Kobe’s ability to handle pressure, then the same questions need to be applied for Pippen at this stage of his career.

Can Horace Grant guard Horry?

In 1995, Robert Horry lit up Horace Grant in the 1995 finals, and that match-up might have been an even bigger factor in the Rockets sweep of Orlando than Hakeem outplaying Shaq. The 91 version of Grant vs. 01 Horry would not be the same, but there are questions. Firstly, when Horry is in the game, it goes without saying that Grant has to extend out to him and not help out on Shaq. Leaving Horry open (especially in big moments) was often a fatal error. This means that Grant cannot (or anyone that is guarding Horry) be relied upon to help on Shaq or to get defensive rebounds as they’ll be defending on the perimeter.

Verdict: Lakers in 6. I never thought I would ever pick against Jordan (and especially not during his prime), but Shaq during this era was every bit as dominant as what Jordan was. The match-up with Kobe would be Wrestlemania worthy, and I fully expect Jordan to get the better of the emerging legend. But make no mistake about it, Bryant would be the toughest player Jordan has ever gone against, and Jordan would have to be at his absolute best to not be dominated by Kobe. Plus, Jordan would have to work extensively on the defensive end to limit Bryant’s production. The Bulls would be at such a disadvantage against Shaq, their only hope would be swarming O’Neal from the perimeter, or fouling him. If you’re doubling with Pippen, that means Jordan has to guard Bryant all game. And if you’re asking Jordan to match Shaq’s dominance on the offensive end, and shut down Kobe defensively, well that’s asking for a hell of a lot from one man (even if that one man is the greatest of all time). The thing that I can’t get past is how badly Shaq destroyed incredible defenders such as Dikembe Mutombo, and the Duncan/ Robinson combination in San Antonio. The Bulls don’t have anything that remotely resembles that kind of a post defender. If Chicago expects to slow down Shaq by using double teams from Pippen, they need someone behind Shaq who has the strength to make sure O’Neal is catching the ball 15 feet from the basket, rather than 8 or 9 feet. I can’t get past the fact that the Bulls have no answer for that, and Chicago goes down.

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