1996 Chicago Bulls vs 1986 Boston Celtics

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It almost seems a crime that these two teams meet in the semi-finals of this feature. Both the 96 Bulls and 86 Celtics present compelling arguments as to why they should be the greatest team in NBA History. The 96 Bulls have the best single-season resume out of all the teams with 72 wins and a 15-3 record in the playoffs. They also virtually swept the individual awards with Jordan claiming the league MVP, finals MVP, and MVP of the all-star game. Pippen was top 5 in voting for the league MVP. Jordan led the league in scoring. Rodman led the league in rebounding. Phil Jackson was coach of the year. Toni Kukoc was named 6th man of the year. Jordan and Pippen all-nba first team, and Jordan, Pippen, Rodman all-defensive first team honours. Despite the awards claimed, it was their cohesiveness as a team that has left an impression that few teams can dream of.

One team, however, that is not just comparable to that vaunted Bulls team-play and chemistry, but in many ways exceeded the 96 Bulls, is the 86 Celtics. Boston featured 5 hall-of-fame players (Bird, McHale, Parish, Walton, and Dennis Johnson), along with a deep and more than capable supporting cast that made the game so easy that they actually became bored with their own dominance and had to invent ways to make the games interesting (Bird shooting only with his left hand against Portland, for example). The Bulls in 96 also went out of their way to make things interesting. Remember when Jordan lit up rookie Jerry Stackhouse for 49 points in 3 quarters for merely saying that he was “half as good as MJ”? Despite the differences in the rosters (Celtics dominated inside, and the Bulls were much more of a perimeter/ backcourt team), the similarities make this such an intriguing match-up. Let’s get into it!

Basketball Poetry

The Celtics run of dominance in the middle of the 80s is largely underrated by NBA fans and historians alike. Boston was one unlikely resurrection of Kareem’s career (in the middle of the NBA Finals and at the age of 38, no less) away from a 3 peat of their own. What is even more remarkable about Bird and the Celtic’s run was the fact that they were at their best at the end of that 3-year run. Every other great team in NBA history has shown significant signs of weakness at the end of a 3-year cycle. Let’s compare teams in their third year of dominance that won at least 2 titles during a 3-year span, and during the 3-point era:

86 Celtics: 67 Wins, NBA Champions

89 Lakers: 57 Wins, Swept in the Finals

91 Pistons: 50 Wins, Swept in conference finals

93 Bulls: 57 Wins, NBA Champions

96 Rockets: 48 Wins, Swept in conference semi-finals

98 Bulls: 62 Wins, NBA Champions

02 Lakers: 58 Wins, NBA Champions

11 Lakers: 57 Wins, Swept in conference semi-finals

14 Heat: 54 Wins, lost by record margin in NBA finals

There are a few teams that won a title in their 3rd year, but they resembled teams that survived the journey. The 98 Bulls and 02 Lakers (the teams that won rings in their 3rd year) were all pushed to 7th games in either the conference finals or NBA finals. The only other team that didn’t face an elimination game was the 93 Bulls, but even they found themselves down 0-2 to the Knicks in the conference finals, along with having to close out the Suns on the road in the NBA finals. The other teams were either swept, or lost by a record margin in 5 games (Spurs vs Heat). It defies all logic that the 86 Celtics weren’t just by far the best team from their 3-year run, but perhaps the best team in NBA history.

“Can’t run? Can’t Jump? Bad back? Pathetic.”

Larry Bird bad back

“Larry was a debate. He still is. People ask me all the time who my all-time top five players are, and when I start saying Larry Bird, they interrupt me. They say ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. He can’t play with LeBron James!’ I tell them, ‘You guys don’t get it. Larry is far better than any small forward who played the game, and to be honest, I’m not sure if he is a small forward or a power forward. To fully appreciate Bird, you need to know the game. You have to be a basketball person to give him his due. He’s not jumping out of the gym. He doesn’t dunk on anyone. He doesn’t show any quickness. That’s why some people can’t see the value of his game. Now, is that racial? I suppose you could see it that way, since he doesn’t possess the athleticism of some of the black guys in the league, but I never bought that. If you walked into Madison Square Garden, a mecca of basketball, and said, ‘What do you think of Larry Bird’s game?’ the answer is going to be, ‘He’s a great player because he can do so much.’ And that has nothing to do with the colour of his skin.” – Michael Jordan

During the mid-80s, Larry Bird was not just at the top of his game, but was perhaps playing the most intelligent basketball we have ever seen from an individual. His averages jumped off the page, and was the catalyst of the Celtics dominance during that period:

Bird 1984 to 1988 averages (5 seasons)

27.3 PPG (51% FG, 40% 3PT, 89.9% FT), 9.8 RPG, 6.8 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.9 BPG

Those numbers almost don’t seem real. There is also very little deviation for playoff games during that period:

26.3 PPG (49% FG, 37% 3PT, 89.9% FT), 9.7 RPG, 6.7 APG, 1.9 SPG, 0.9 BPG

As jaw-dropping as those numbers are, they don’t even begin to tell the story about Bird and the impact that his play had not only on the Celtics run, but in basketball in general. There’s a reason the real king of basketball, Michael Jordan, is so passionate in educating youngers fans in how good Bird was. There’s a reason that Magic Johnson said that he’s “never feared another man” on the basketball court, “apart from Larry Bird.” There’s a reason why Bird was able to upset Dr J so badly that he started taking swings at him during a regular season game. There’s a reason why members of opposing teams would actually high five each other when he was getting hot. There’s a reason that people got so upset with Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman for saying that he was overrated because he was white.

And that reason is simple: Larry Bird was, at his peak, the best player in the 80s. Now you might argue that Magic was better because of his longevity, and I’ll even agree with you when it came to who produced the most over that decade. But I will argue until I’m blue in the face that Bird was untouchable at his peak in the 80s, and when you take into account the talent during that decade (Magic obviously, a young MJ, Olajuwon, Dr J, Moses Malone, Kareem, Isiah, Karl Malone, Drexler etc), that’s a huge statement.

Off the highway, then the scoreboard, backboard, no rim.

On paper, any version of Michael Jordan vs Larry Bird would be enough to invoke the most passionate debates among basketball fans. The reality is this one might just be the most incredible comparison between the two.

Michael Jordan 1995/96: 30.4 PPG (50% FG, 43% 3PT, 83% FT), 6.6 RPG, 4.3 APG, 2.2 SPG, 0.5 BPG

The scary thing about Jordan’s production is it seemed like he was in total cruise control the entire season. But this was a very different Jordan to the uber-dominant version that crushed everyone prior to retirement in 93.

“During the first run of championships, Michael had led primarily by example, but after the loss to Orlando [in the 95 Playoffs] he realised that he needed to do something dramatically different to motivate this team. Simply glaring at his teammates and expecting them to be just like him wasn’t going to cut it anymore.” – Phil Jackson

“I Knew I had to be more respectful of my teammates. And I knew I had to be more respectful of what was happening to me in terms of trying to get back into the game. I had to get more internal.” – Michael Jordan

“When the 90s hit, I looked at him and said ‘He’s mastered the art of winning.’ And that’s what stood out to me. In the mid-80s, late 80s, obviously, he and his team were trying to figure it out. He understood exactly what it took. To me it was just a foregone conclusion, watching his teams in the 90s. He understood the secret to winning more than anyone else in the league at that time. That means through the course of the game, it’s not about his numbers or stats. It’s about imposing his will on the game. I would see him guarding his man and let’s say the small forward from the other team gets hot. You’d see him flip over and guard him himself. At that point, you’re doing whatever it takes to win. When you see him posting up bigger guys, playing the paint, whatever he has to do, he’s mastering the art of winning. Whatever it takes to win, that’s what he would do.” – Joe Dumars

The same qualities that defined Bird (intelligence, desire and dedication to winning, leadership, etc.) were now the shining characteristics of Jordan’s game.

Are these guys a wash?

Not quite. It’s close. Bird was an incredible rebounder and put up incredible shooting numbers. Jordan was a much more versatile defender and, outside of Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin McHale (we’ll get to that in a minute), was maybe the best post-up player of all time. The difference to me is exactly what Dumars said, and that was Jordan’s ability to impose his will on the game is what separates him. Bird might be the second best all-time in that regard (although you do have to throw Kobe and Russell in there), but even if he is number 2, there’s a massive separation between 1st and 2nd. Let’s have a closer look at some examples of Jordan’s dominance over the league (I’m only going to use one example per season because otherwise I’m going to go way off-topic here):

  • Game 6, 98 Finals: Dropping 45 points on Utah and carries Chicago to their 6th title in his final game as a Bull. I rank this game as the top individual performance in NBA finals history (admittedly this list does need revising, but Jordan’s game is still number 1. Greatest performance in NBA finals history)
  • Game 5, 97 Finals: Scores 38 points despite food poisoning in game 5 of the 97 finals. The series was tied at 2, and in Utah (who had been undefeated at home in the playoffs until that game), and the Jazz had just won 2 consecutive games and looked to have the Bulls on the ropes. Jordan, despite being significantly hampered by the sickness, not only carried the Bulls back into the game after going down by 15 points early, but finished the Jazz off with a clutch 3. How do you top that? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe with a 39-point cameo in Chicago to seal the series. And all this was after he buried the game winner in the opener, and was a blown Scottie Pippen lay-up away from a triple-double in game 2. It was almost as if he had something to prove against league “MVP” Karl Malone that season… that sentence nearly makes me vomit each time I have to type it.
  • Game 4, 96 Eastern Conference Finals: Jordan’s 45 points in Orlando is the catalyst for the Bulls sweep over Shaq and Penny (the team that knocked out the Bulls the previous season)
  • Game 2, 95 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals: After one of the most uncharacteristic games in Jordan’s career (2 turnovers in the final minute), MJ rebounded and shredded Nick Anderson and the Magic for 38 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals, and 4 blocks. Oh, and by the way, he had barely been back in the NBA for 2 months.
  • 1993 NBA Finals: Jordan’s averages for that series (please make sure you’re sitting down before reading this): 41ppg (51%FG, 40% 3PT, 70%FT), 8.5 RPG, 6.3 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.7 BPG. During a 4-game stretch (game 2 to game 5), he averaged 45.5 ppg (51% FG, 37% 3PT, 69% FT), 9 RPG, 7 APG. Jesus Christ. The scary thing is he actually left some points on the table with a very standard free-throw percentage. These numbers will never be repeated.
  • Game 1, 92 Finals: Speaking of things that we will never see happen again, this also qualifies. We will never see the top player in the game completely dismantle the second-best player in more dramatic fashion. The scary thing in all of this is people back then were actually making the case for Drexler being superior to MJ before this game. Jordan put all that to rest with 35 points in the first half (not a typo) that included 6 3’s for MJ (also not a typo). The Bulls would go on a 57-23 run from the 2nd quarter (for the 3rd time, not a typo) that would be immortalised by a simple shrug.

Are we getting the point here? OK, one more.

  • Game 2, First Round, 86 Playoffs: Jordan had only started 7 games after suffering an understated career-threatening broken foot in only his second season. His reward in coming back? A match-up with Bird and the 86 Celtics. What does Jordan do? Drops 49 points in game 1. Not a big deal, right? Especially not when the Celtics won the game by 19 points. Then game 2 happens. 63 Points. Sixty-fucking-three points. And perhaps the most impressive element to all of this was the fact that the Bulls really didn’t clear out for him and let him go iso. Virtually all his points were the result of the Bulls executing their offense, and the Celtics having no answer for him.

Think about that for a second. If Jordan was able to, without truly breaking out of the structure of the offense (something he did do frequently when he felt he needed to do so), drop 63 points in his second season, with no significant help, then what kind of problems would he cause the Celtics when his game was much more well-rounded and has the help of Pippen’s playmaking, Rodman’s offensive rebounding, and Kukoc’s ability to spread the floor and score at will even among the best defenders at the power forward position.

You can’t double him because of those factors, so do you leave Dennis Johnson on him? DJ was a great defender, but Jordan chewed him up in his second season. What happens when a much bigger Jordan faces him? You can’t go to Ainge either, because MJ will just post him up. Bird was a good defender, and might be the best option. But how realistic is it for Bird to be guarding Jordan for an entire game and series?

Bird, on the other hand, he did tear up Dennis Rodman in the 87 conference finals (27 ppg, 10 rpg, 8 apg), but keep in mind that was Rodman’s rookie season. Bird also had success against Pippen during his career, but Pippen was a much more mature player in 96 than when Bird was making him look silly. Plus, you also had Jordan, who was one of the best defenders of all-time. I am much more confident in the Bulls trio of defenders slowing down Bird than anything the Celtics can throw at Jordan.

“For the kind of moves that never fail, the weapon of choice is Kevin McHale”

If the Bulls do use Rodman on Bird at times, the obvious question becomes who guards McHale? In 1986, McHale was the best post-up player in the league. It was him, and not Bird, who led the Celtics in scoring in 86 finals despite going up against Sampson and Olajuwon.

Kevin McHale: 25.8 PPG (57% FG, 80% FT), 8.5 RPG, 1.7 APG

Larry Bird: 24 PPG (49% FG, 37% 3PT, 94% FT), 9.7 RPG, 9.5 APG, 2.7 SPG

Bird’s line was one of the best in NBA finals history, but McHale’s importance has to be recognised in this discussion. How would the Bulls handle both McHale and Bird defensively?

Celtic Guarded by
Parish/ Walton Longley/ Kukoc
McHale Rodman
Bird Jordan
Ainge Harper
Dennis Johnson Pippen

There are a couple of obvious questions that arise from these match-ups. Rodman was an outstanding post defender during the Bulls second 3-peat. He stifled Malone in both finals appearances, contained Shaq in the 96 conference finals, and did a great job on Ewing and Mourning. Those guys are all hall of fame players, and while they didn’t have the post repertoire of McHale, they did present problems for any defender assigned to them.

The Bulls biggest weakness was the centre position, and they are going up against a hall of fame tandem here. Let’s look at the offensive skill-set for these players though. Parish was especially effective in pick and roll situations, offensive rebounding, and also when they posted him up. The Bulls had the best perimeter defence in the history of the game, and prided themselves on shutting down the pick and roll (once again, look at what they did to Utah and their vaunted pick and roll system). The Bulls, largely due to Rodman, but also because of Pippen, Jordan, and Harper, controlled the glass against every team they faced. And then we have Parish in the post. Now, without help, Parish would be able to use his speed and footwork to create offense. But just keep in mind how good the Bulls were at in terms of doubling from the perimeter. Parish would still create problems, but if you’re expecting him to carry the offensive load for Boston, then they might be in trouble.

Then there’s Walton. At this stage of his career, his chemistry with Bird was his biggest offensive asset. Now if you have Jordan on Bird, then will Bird be able to outsmart Jordan consistently for easy baskets via screens and back-cuts? I wouldn’t put my money on it. He’d get him sometime, but if you take that away, what good is Walton at that stage of their career. What this duo is good for though is their size, and it really limits the amount of opportunities for Chicago to play the Rodman/ Kukoc/ Pippen/ Jordan/ Harper combination. In that situation, this series becomes a defensive war on both ends.

I touched on my skepticism of Bird being able to outsmart Jordan consistently with MJ guarding him, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t try. Jordan would have to work on every possession, and that might slow him down on the offensive end. The only reason I say might is because it’s MJ. Anyone else and it’s a guarantee to impact his offensive game. Expect Bird to post him up (not really an issue for Jordan in 96 with his added strength), run him off screens (both on and off the ball), and a variety of cuts at every opportunity. Jordan would figure it out though, and it would be incredible to watch.

With Jordan on Bird, that frees up Pippen defensively. This is critical as now Scottie can hound Johnson bringing the ball up the court. Think back to what Pippen did to Magic in the 91 finals, as well Mark Jackson in the 98 conference finals. The Bulls were a brilliant pressing team, and yeah, you can still go to Ainge, but he has Harper (who was also an incredible perimeter defender) on him. If Boston can’t figure out the press, it doesn’t matter how many bigs they have if they can’t get the ball past half court. Johnson was a respectable mid-range shooter, but Pippen covered a lot of court when doubling the post. Johnson would have to start hitting 3’s to make Pippen think twice about helping down low.

Conclusion

Bulls in 7.

I came into this match-up thinking that the Celtics depth would be too much, but 2 things changed my mind. The Celtics have no answer at all for Jordan. I can’t let go of essentially a rookie Jordan lighting them up for 112 points in 2 games in Boston in the playoffs with no help. Now you add experience, a more consistent jump-shot, a lot better teammates, and Phil Jackson to the equation and put him against the same Celtics squad and it doesn’t work out good for Boston. Boston has some incredible weapons at their disposal, but the Bulls at the very least can slow them down, especially with Pippen hounding the ball and roaming in the half-court. Can McHale offset that with Rodman on him? Can Bird outduel Jordan? Will Walton outshine Kukoc? Possibly. That’s why I think it goes 7. But the Bulls win.