Michael Jordan Game 6 1998 Finals: NBA’s Armageddon (Greatest Performance in NBA Finals History)
Fresh off Karl Malone’s greatest game, Utah was surging and perhaps playing their best basketball of the entire Stockton/ Malone era. The Jazz were down 3-2 in the series, but all the momentum was with them. Chicago was dealing with Pippen who was crippled by a sprained back which was triggering spasms, and Ron Harper (who had been critical in slowing and down containing Stockton in the series) had the flu, and The Bulls now faced an extended series just after coming off a gruelling 7 game war with Indiana, whereas the Jazz had been well rested headed into the championship series.
From the very beginning of the game, it was clear that Jordan was aware of the situation The Bulls faced on the offensive end and he was more than willing to stand up and provide even more scoring. In the first half he had poured in 23 points (including 3 threes), but Utah lead 42-37. In hindsight, the lead should have been at least double digits, even with Jordan’s increased production. Pippen, as noted before, was severely limited with the back issue. Rodman has never been known for his scoring. Harper, whilst having offensive skills, was a converted defensive specialist, and was sick. Kukoc had played well in the playoffs, but was an enigma (plus his defense against Malone was horrendous at times). Longley was in the midst of a horrid playoff run. Steve Kerr was a good shooter, but couldn’t create his own shot, and with Pippen being limited, meant that Utah could cover him much closer.
The fact that Utah wasn’t able to go on a significant run, say a 15 point spurt and break the game open, gave Jordan the sense that this game was right there for the taking. Ex championship teammate, B.J. Armstrong said that “Jordan was able to accurately gauge the tempo of the game, almost like a coach, whilst being on the court.” This ability allowed him to lift his team when needed or put away another team when he sensed that they were vulnerable.
When we go back and look at this game, and apply what Armstrong had said, you can put 2 and 2 together and realise that Jordan had sensed that Utah had already failed. They had a chance to exploit Chicago’s obvious vulnerabilities, but had not, and the outcome of the game was very much still in question. Pippen, who was forced the miss most of the first half getting treatment for his back, would return in the second half, and play 19 minutes. His role, however, was greatly reduced and was more of a decoy than anything else. The Jazz would take a 66-61 lead into the fourth quarter, with The Bulls well and truly within striking distance.
Jordan tied the game at 83 with two huge free throws before the Jazz came down and buried a 3 over Harper to put Utah up 86-83 with 42 seconds left. The Bulls went two for one, with Jordan receiving the ball at midcourt and attacking Byron Russell. Russell reached, and Jordan blew right by him and made a tough lay up over Antoine Carr. It was a massive basket off a big time drive that cut The Jazz lead to one with 37 seconds left. Utah opted to not call a timeout, and Stockton took his time before throwing an entry pass to Karl Malone. Jordan admitted after the game that they had been trying to double Malone all game, and Hornacek was attempting to screen down for Malone. Here’s what he had to say “Hornacek was trying to, I guess, pick Karl Malone, and he never really cleared, which gave me an opportunity to go back. Karl never saw me coming.” In fact, Malone hadn’t even established his stance before Jordan struck.
What made that play so fascinating to watch over and over again is Jordan’s poise in such a critical situation. On Utah’s previous possession, Chicago doubled Malone which lead to the Stockton 3 and appeared to have given Utah enough of a cushion to win. Jordan gambled this time, but with such precision and beautiful timing, and Malone didn’t have a chance. Jordan had the NBA playoff record for steals, but that was the most important of his entire career.
As Jordan recovered the loose ball, Chicago did not call a time out. There was 18 seconds left, and “the crowd gets quiet, and the moment starts to become the moment” as Jordan described during the MJ to the Max video. Jordan, fresh off just blowing right by Russell for a layup on the previous possession, began to drive right and as Russell reacted, Jordan pulled it back (whilst giving him a slight tap on the arse just to ensure that the move worked, but he didn’t even need it as Russell was already falling from the move) and elevated from 20 feet, and buried the championship winning jumper.
“I never doubted myself,” Jordan said after the game “I never doubted the whole game.” Phil Jackson compared Jordan’s final minute to that of a cat waiting for a mouse, patiently biding its time before the mouse (unexpectedly) comes forth, and the cat is perfectly prepared and strikes.
Whatever it was, it was unbelievable (or “Fucking unbelievable!” as Jud Buechler described it). Jordan had scored Chicago’s last 8 points, and 6 in the final minute of the game. In fact, no other Bull even touched the ball in that last minute. Think about that for a minute.
Did I also mention that he was 35? And since returning from baseball, he hadn’t missed a game? The effort required by him to carry his team, in those circumstances was heroic. But here’s the thing; People often get caught up in the mythology of Jordan, making him almost as revered as a God, but here’s a newsflash: He isn’t. He’s human. He has flaws like everyone. He fails at times. And that makes this performance all the more unbelievable. There is little doubt that had he been less than perfect in that final minute (or less than spectacular the entire game), Utah would have won game 6 and maybe the entire series.
That’s what makes this performance remarkable.
What is also remarkable was this was his second highest scoring game in the NBA finals (His highest being the 55 point performance), and it came in his final game on basketball’s biggest stage.
Forget Cleveland; this was “The Shot”. This game is what defined Jordan and put him on a level that no one is really comparable. This game, this performance, was in many ways, the Armageddon of the NBA. We all knew it was coming, we weren’t totally surprised by it, but when it came, we were in total awe and word’s don’t do it justice. It wasn’t just Utah and Chicago that was effected by this game and performance. The entire league was never the same. If you talk to fans that were aware of what was happening in 1998, it was the end of the wonderful Magic-Bird-Jordan era. The end had finally arrived.
Throughout this list, you may have noticed there is a balance between brilliant production and gutsy performances with everything on the line (career definitions included). Jordan’s game 6 in 1998 was perhaps the only one that genuinely covers both those areas completely.
If you have seen the game, you know everything I have written here is authentic and free of hyperbole. If you haven’t, I envy you. Go and experience brilliance on a scale that sports hasn’t seen before (and hasn’t seen since)