They didn’t play the same position, but the players who occasionally guarded each other had a great deal of mutual respect. After MJ torched the Celtics with unbelievable 63 points in game 2 of the 1986 Eastern Conference First Round, it was Bird who praised the young Bulls superstar.
“I would never have called him the greatest player I’d ever seen if I didn’t mean it. It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”Larry Bird, Boston Globe
Their head-to-head comparison across eight seasons reveals that the Celtics have posted a respectable 17-11 record in the games which featured their fierce scoring battles. The two greats had similar statistics except in the categories of scoring (Jordan 33.5ppg vs. Bird 26.9), steals (Jordan 2.7 vs. Bird 1.4), and three-point field goal percentage (Bird 46.9% vs. Jordan 30.6%).
One of the most epic and memorable battles between the two future Dream Team teammates took place on March 31st, 1991. Bird, who fully recovered from an injury that forced him to miss almost entire 1988-89 season, was having another All-Star season while leading the rejuvenated Celtics to another postseason appearance.
On the other hand, Jordan, who traditionally led the league in scoring from 1987, took Phil Jackson’s preseason advice and eventually adapted his style of play to the newly implemented Chicago Bulls more team-oriented offensive system – the triangle-offense.
Bird led the way for Celtics to a hard-fought 132-135 epic double-overtime win. Covered by Horace Grant, Scottie Pippen, and Cliff Levingston, The Hick from the French Lick, scored 34 points on 15-36 shooting from the field to go along with 15 boards, 8 assists, and 3 blocked shots in 52 minutes of play.
Jordan played one minute less than Bird. Even though Reggie Lewis confronted him, MJ was able to score or dish almost at will. Scoring 37 points on 12-36 shooting (13-13 from the line) while also contributing 7 boards, 9 assists, and 2 steals to the Bulls strong effort to win in the Boston Garden.
At the dramatic end of the regulation, Lewis first denied Jordan the ball. Then Bird launched a triple at the buzzer, hit the iron, but the ball eventually bounced back before finally clanging off the rim.
In overtime, the heated battle continued. It was John Paxson who tied the game with a triple with 32.4 seconds left in the first overtime. Then, with 1.1 seconds left, it was Grant who intercepted the Cs inbounds played and gave the Bulls a chance to win it.
With the shot clock being reset to 0.4 seconds before the end of the 1st OT, all eyes were on MJ. And he certainly didn’t disappoint, although the play didn’t count. The Celtics Croatian 7’2” giant Stojko Vrankovic went into the game to alternate the inbound pass by Pippen. But Pippen did hit MJ with the ball in the right corner. With Lewis’ hand in his face, MJ went up for turnaround jumper just in front of the Celtics bench, and hit it! But, the basket was then waved off by official Mike Mathis.
Bird opened the second overtime with red hot shooting from the wing. With his concentration at maximum level, Jordan took over for the Bulls, taking advantage of the friendly rims at the Garden! But this time around, MJ just couldn’t do it all by himself, and the Celtics won the thrilling game by 132-135.