Michael Jordan is, without a doubt one of the greatest if not the greatest offensive players in NBA history. There was a particular factor of fear involved among players who had to guard him, but one of the rare ones that we’re able to slow him down was Gary Payton. That was especially evident during the 1996 NBA finals when the Seattle Supersonics played the Chicago Bulls. Despite the fact, Bulls won that series, Payton’s defense on Jordan was a topic for discussion.
In an interview for Sonicsgate, Payton talks about the preparation and the mindset he had when going up against Jordan during that series. Unfortunately for the Sonics but also all the NBA fans, Sonics head-coach George Karl didn’t let Payton guard Jordan until game four because of a calf injury. Karl didn’t want to risk it even though he knew Payton is his best defender, and it was Payton who had enough courage to confront his coach and said he would gladly take that assignment upon himself. The Sonics were down 0-3 in the series, and they had nothing to lose.
“I went to his office, and I said, look, we don’t have anything else to lose. Whether you gonna let me guard him or not, I will switch every play that you do anyways that go off him. He said, do what you gotta do.”
Payton tried to do everything that was in his power to slow down Jordan, who was averaging over 30 points per game in the first three wins for the Bulls, and he was relatively successful. In the next three games, Jordan averaged only 21 points shooting extremely poor from the field, but fortunately for the Bulls, they had several other players who stepped up at the right time.
“I tried to frustrate him as much as possible. It’s not easy because I knew I couldn’t frustrate him; he is the greatest basketball player that ever played to me. I think what I did was tire him out. I made him work for it a little bit more. He wasn’t really used to working so hard to get the basketball, and after you get the ball with about 8 or 9 seconds, you still got somebody right into you, and the referees weren’t calling the calls. They were letting us play.”
Jordan averaged only 27.3 points per game for the entire series, which was his lowest scoring output in all of the six finals he played in. Despite the fact Payton was relatively successful in guarding Jordan, the Sonics couldn’t secure game seven, and even if they did, chances of them winning that series weren’t great. Payton said defending Jordan was an incredibly hard task but a great challenge which he appreciated. Even though he known as a great two-way player, it was after those finals against the Bulls people started to recognize Payton as a great defender.
“It was a great challenge for me, and I loved it, and that is when everybody really started recognizing that I was a great defensive player. It also happened I won the defensive player of the year award that year.”