NBA finals in 1991 marked a significant shift in the league after Chicago Bulls beat the Los Angeles Lakers in five games. It also marked the start of a Bulls dynasty lead by Michael Jordan as the best player in the league, which was displayed perfectly during those finals. In Game 5 of the NBA finals Jordan, was incredibly efficient, scoring 30 points and dishing out ten assists. However, Phil Jackson remembers one moment in the game when Jordan held back the rest of the team, which resulted in a Lakers comeback.
The entire game, Jordan was in attack mode and neglected his teammates, who were often wide open. Magic Johnson was helping out on defense quite a bit, leaving John Paxson open on several occasions, but nobody found him for an open shot. Jackson realized Jordan was putting Paxson in a limbo, so he called a timeout to remind Jordan he has better options on offense.
“I wasn’t happy with what I was seeing. Despite our discussions, Michael was leaving Paxson in limbo. Magic often left his man (Paxson) to help other players on defense. He was gambling that Michael wouldn’t give up the ball. Paxson was a strong clutch shooter, and Michael trusted him more than others in tight situations. But with the championship in our sights, Michael was reverting to his old habit of trying to win games by himself. So I called a timeout and gathered the team together. “Who’s open, MJ?” I asked, looking directly into Michaels’ eyes. He didn’t answer. So I asked again, “Who’s open?” “Paxson,” he replied. “Okay, so get him the damn ball.”
After the timeout, Jordan realized the mistakes he was previously making, so he completely changed his mindset. He decided to actively look to involve his teammates, especially John Paxson, a very reliable shooter. Jordan’s mentality changed, so he was responsible for ultimately shifting the game in Bull’s favor by involving Paxson more often when Magic gambled on defense. This strategy paid off because Paxson nailed a couple of consecutive shots.
“After that exchange, the game turned. Michael and others started delivering the ball to Paxson, and he responded by hitting four shots in a row. The Lakers drew within 2 points with a little over a minute left. But I noticed something different as Michael moved the ball up the court. I expected him to make a move toward the basket, as he usually did in this situation. But instead, he was luring the defense in his direction and trying to create a shot for, yes, Paxson. It was a sweet ending. John nailed the two-pointer, and we went on to win the championship.”
Jackson described how great of a moment it was after they won their first championship because it reminded him of the times he had with the Knicks when they won championships. Even though they also had several All-Star players on their roster, they played team basketball, which was the mentality Jackson wanted the Bulls to have.
“This was a profound moment for me. I had just won my first ring as a coach, and best of all, we had done it by playing the game the same way my Knicks team had played when we won the championship. The right way.”
The Bulls would win another five NBA championships, and even though they had great individuals, team basketball was something they nurtured through that entire process. It all started with Jordan, who often got double-teamed by other teams, so his decision to find an open teammate was necessary for the Bulls to win games. It was that moment in game five against the Lakers, and he saw the full effect of reading the defense correctly and making the right pass for a shot that can potentially decide the NBA championship.