"He had a lot of rust. He was not himself," Penny Hardaway said about facing Michael Jordan after he returned from baseball. "He wasn’t full-throttle Michael. He was Michael, but he wasn’t full-throttle Michael."
Jordan rejoined the Bulls for their final 17 games of the 1994-95 regular season and helped them secure the No.5 seed in the East -- they went 13-4 since he made his return. But the time he spent on the court wasn't enough for MJ to get back to his old self.
Full-throttle Michael wasn't needed for the Bulls to beat the Hornets in the first round of the Playoffs. But going into the series against the Orlando Magic, the organization had hoped their best player would return to the same level of greatness prior to his first retirement.
He didn't, and the Magic capitalized on it.
Orlando Magic beat the Bulls
Led by Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O'Neal, Orlando beat the Bulls in a six-game series to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. They then defeated the Indiana Pacers but were swept by the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals.
However, the Magic's 1995 postseason is mostly remembered for their victory over MJ and the Bulls.
"We were young and you can say 'dumb,'" Penny said. "We understood the history of three championships already and how they did it. And I wasn’t really worried about the Jordan rules and the Detroit wars and the wars with Boston or any of that. We were the group that was ready to win a championship, and he was coming back into our world. That’s how I thought, honestly, at the time, because we were the hottest team."
And that's exactly how the series played out. The message was sent in Game 1 -- the Nick Anderson game -- and the Bulls were never able to bounce back. The same goes for Jordan, who entered the series wearing No. 45. Then in Game 2, he came out in No.23 after Anderson said, "No. 45 is not No. 23." But even that didn't work.
Despite putting up good numbers -- 31 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and 3.7 APG -- MJ was a shell of himself. And according to Hardaway, that awoke the best.
Jordan's revenge campaign
"I think that pissed Michael off," Penny said. "I think that showed him that it wasn’t just going to be easy coming back and getting back on a team and start winning championships again."
So what did Michael do? He used the time off he had to work on his game and make sure he and the Bulls get back to where they belong -- on top of the basketball world. What followed was the greatest regular-season run the NBA has ever seen, capped off with the organization's fourth NBA title.
"I think it really shocked him how good we really were," Hardaway said."It drove them that next year to just go out and dominate even though we still beat them that next year in the regular season. We beat them at Orlando in their 72-10 season. But when the playoffs happened, we had too many injuries."
And not only that, but the Bulls finally had their best player back.
"He was much different," Penny said about MJ's performance in the 1996 NBA Playoffs. "He was the Michael Jordan we know."
Other than an increase in efficiency -- 52% from the field compared to 47.7% in 1995 -- MJ put up similar numbers; 29.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, and 4.8 APG. But everyone on the Magic agreed; at that point, MJ was back to his old self. And his story was far from over.