Over the first three games of the ’96 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan averaged 31 points on 46 percent from the field. He tortured Seattle’s wing defenders, utilizing his size against Hersey Hawkins and his quickness against Detlef Schrempf, as the Bulls took a commanding 3-0 series lead.
So with the series slipping through his fingers, in an attempt to at least postpone Chicago’s celebration, George Karl put Gary Payton on His Airness. This was a last resort type of adjustment, and something Karl hadn’t experimented with ever before. But it worked. So much that today, not doing it sooner may as well be one of Karl’s biggest regrets.
My feeling is it was a mistake. I don’t know if it was a mistake that lost us the series, but it was something I should’ve done earlier. At least experimenting with it earlier.George Karl, 1-on-1 with Basketball Network
During The Last Dance, The Glove explained his approach when going up against MJ for that three-game stretch. “A lot of people backed down to Mike. I didn’t. I made it a point; I said, ‘just tire him out. Tire the f*** out of him. You’ve just gotta tire him out.’ I just kept hitting him and banging him and hitting him and banging him, and it took a toll on Mike.”
The get physical with him mentality bore fruit, as Payton held Jordan to 23.7 points on 36.7% shooting. And despite the SuperSonics losing the series in six, they won that little three-game stretch 2-1, meaning that ‘putting Gary on Michael’ experiment was a success.
One can only wonder how Seattle would’ve fared had Karl made that adjustment sooner, the same way one can wonder how the series would’ve been different had the SuperSonics not decided to fly home right after Game 2. Because arriving in Seattle around 5 am messed up the team’s sleeping pattern, causing irreparable damage that would later swing a series, according to Karl, at least.
But I wouldn’t say a flight was the factor that swung those Finals because the Sonics bounced back and won back to back games afterward. However, not having Payton on MJ for the entirety of the series might’ve been, and a three-game sample size proves it.