Game 5 of 1998 NBA finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz received very little coverage in the closing episode of the documentary series ‘The Last Dance’. The reason might be obvious – Michael Jordan was simply unrecognizable, hitting only 9-26 shots from the field.
That evening, quite opposite of Jordan was the performance of the 6’10’’ Croatian forward Toni Kukoč who could score against any Jazz defenders at will. Knowing that the only real shot-blocking threat out there is Jazz center Greg Ostertag Pink Panther could easily penetrate or hit from the perimeter.
That evening, all that Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan could do was to watch and pray that Kukoč doesn’t get too many shot opportunities. Kukoč eventually did get 13 shots, and he made 11 of those. But, in regards to this, it’s important to say that on that occasion Kukoč hit a number of big clutch time shots for his team.
The Bulls held the 36-30 halftime lead but the Jazz stormed back in the third quarter winning it by 19-29 end ending the period with a cumulative score of 55-59. It would be even worse for Bulls if it wasn’t for Kukoč who calmly sank two triples during that period and thus held the Bulls in contention.
The Jazz held 78-71 lead with 1:48 to go in the game. It was time to see who’s clutch, and who’s not. Toni first hit a triple over Karl Malone from the right wing. Then with 22.0 seconds left in the game, Kukoč proceeded to the same spot and received the pass from Jordan, who was doubled. As Kukoč was already in the air launching the triple which could cut Jazz lead to one, Malone fouled him. With 18.9 seconds left in the game, Toni hit two of three free-throws.
With the Jazz in front 78-82, with 10.4 seconds left, Kukoč inbounded the ball to Pippen. ‘Pip’ then returned the rock and Toni again hit an insane triple over Malone, this time from the left side.
In front of 23,844 crowd present in the United Center and millions of others who watched the game live across the globe, it was obvious that it was Kukoč’s heroics that had brought the Bulls back to life.
If somebody earned to be the Hero of the day for the struggling Bulls it was him. He was clearly on fire. If someone earned the legit right to launch a game-winning shot for any team it is a guy who is on fire. With Utah up in front by 81-83 and with 1.1 seconds left in the game the Bulls came out of the huddle.
First time on, Ron Harper tried to inbound the ball to Steve Kerr on the right wing, but the pass was intercepted by Utah’s shooting guard Jeff Hornacek. With only 0.8 left on the clock and with no time-outs left the Bulls had to improvise.
However, the Bulls did come up with a number of options on this last improvised play. After using back-screens Steve Kerr and particularly Scott Burrell got relatively open in the zone near the basket, whilst on the perimeter Jordan and Kukoč proceeded towards the ball, eventually colliding their lanes.
Harper finally decided to inbound the ball to Jordan, who was closer. MJ got the ball and then, atypically for him, launched the prayer over Utah’s defensive stopper, Bryon Russel, shooting off one leg!
How many times in his entire career have you seen MJ to hit a game-winning perimeter shot shooting off one leg? How many times have you seen him even try one when the game is on the line?
Kukoč, who was known for his selflessness, hit numerous game-winning shots throughout his career on both continents. This time he just kept quiet and went to a locker room. Just like a real pro.
Basketball Network contributor Murray A. a.k.a. Marjan Crnogaj, the 1980s and 1990s basketball specialist, is the proud co-author of the Amazon.com TOP 100 basketball biography ‘Drazen – The Years of the Dragon.’