Game Film: 1991 NBA Finals

It’s easy to say, and is often repeated verbatim, that this Finals was the “passing of the torch” between the ’80s and the ’90s. It’s hard to disagree, even when this sentiment is used mostly to prop up the beginning of Michael Jordan’s current demigod status. Before this, the Bulls franchise had never even been to the Finals; Magic Johnson alone was competing in his ninth Finals in just 12 seasons.

Game 1 – June 2nd, 1991

The 61-win Bulls come out to a tentative start despite the home-court advantage over this 58-win, final iteration of the Showtime Lakers. The yarn being spun in today’s media is that “Jordan defeated an old, washed-up Magic,” as if Magic wasn’t the runner-up to Jordan for MVP this very season. Magic was only 31, improving his three-point shooting, still playing excellent basketball, and still leading this team on deep playoff runs while undergoing changes in personnel and coaching. The Lakers average age was 28-years-old, meanwhile the Bulls were only 26.5-years-old on average. This Lakers team was not old, their better players were still in their physical primes, they just ran into a slightly younger, well-oiled machine spearheaded by Michael Jordan.

Run the footage back and you’ll hear the commentators bring up how no one on the Bulls had logged even a second in the Finals prior to this game, and that’s where these disingenuous narratives fall apart. The Lakers weren’t much older than the Bulls, but yet, their core did have significant tread on them by the time they competed in the ’91 Finals, but even casual fans today understand that means the Lakers are the more experienced team in this situation. They’ve been here before, and despite Michael Jordan dropping 15 in the first quarter, carrying the load offensively, his team did not perform nearly as well.

In the first quarter, Scottie Pippen went 1-for-4 from the field, 1-for-2 from the line, had a turnover, and on the opposite end, struggled to contain James Worthy, who was reported to have come into this series with an ankle injury. However, Worthy was moving freely and seemingly without discomfort; happily allowing Pippen to play passively. Jordan relentlessly checked Magic, who was content with calling frequent post ups to Sam Perkins, Worthy, and Vlade Divac, all of whom feasted on an anxious Horace Grant, and made most of their chances on Bill Cartwright and Pippen. Left with no choice but to out-duel Magic, Jordan drove to the basket every chance he could, putting pressure on the defense, racking up five assists, and leading the Bulls’ fast break to close the gap by the end of the quarter after the Lakers operated so efficiently throughout the 12-minute span.

There are glimpses of modern NBA offense in this game, with the Lakers power forward Perkins establishing his three-point shot in this quarter, and throughout the game. Phil Jackson demonstrated preliminary play-calling by inserting Craig Hodges in the remaining seconds of the quarter, putting the ball in Jordan’s hands and spotting the starting point guard John Paxson and Hodges up for easy threes, a strategy even the announcers had no difficulty in dissecting for the audience. They didn’t get a three, but it did lead to wide open space for easy assists from Jordan, and the Bulls closed out the first quarter strong with just a one-point lead over the Lakers, 30-29.

Jordan '91 Finals Game 1

As noted by this stat, and the announcers constant reminders, Jordan would often look to distribute early on in the postseason, facilitating the offense in the first half and getting everything to run smoothly before he closed the game out in the second half. He wasn’t allowed to do that in the first quarter, as this intelligent Lakers squad slowed the game down to their pace; “lulling them to sleep,” according to Bulls coach Phil Jackson1. They continued to do much of the same in the second quarter; scrapping for loose balls, grabbing rebounds, hitting their shots while contesting every Chicago jump shot, and getting to the line frequently.

Pippen led the way during a stretch in the second quarter with the second unit while Jordan and Magic sat, grinding it out against the Lakers second unit, Divac, and Worthy; closing the gap that the Lakers had widened with Magic operating the offense briefly to start the second quarter. Jordan checking in forced Magic to check back in and keep the game neck-and-neck until 3:50 in the second quarter when Pippen switched onto Magic in an attempt to trap him in the backcourt, while Jordan switched onto Divac. The Lakers ended the possession on a 24-second violation. You knew then, by the first half of the first game, that these Bulls were coming.

The Lakers put a bottleneck on the momentum for the remainder of the game, rolling the shot clock down, getting to the line, playing physical, and hitting their shots, but the Bulls weren’t even playing at their best yet; rusty from a delay in games after a sweep of the defending back-to-back champions, the Bad Boy Pistons, and anxious at the thought of playing in their first Finals. Their sloppy ball-handling, overaggressive and sloppy defense, inability to hit shots, and their tendency to give up open threes were all much more instrumental in their sole loss in this series than anything the Lakers actually threw at them. They went into the second half with a 53-51 lead, but perhaps Magic Johnson felt the same feeling I just described above, and used every ounce of his veteran leadership to steal a win from these inexperienced Bulls on the road in the first game of a Finals that many could’ve seen go either way; heaping additional pressure onto the Bulls to get their win back, but most importantly above all, preventing the sweep. If not, Mark Heisler wouldn’t have declared Chicago the “…newly crowned underdogs of the NBA Finals,” in the L.A. Times the night after the Lakers’ win in Chicago2. I know the article starts off trying to portray it as “Magic Johnson and Co. vs. the Almighty Chicago Bulls,” but if Chicago was really favored that heavily, I fail to see how he could be so comfortable writing that the Bulls were now the underdogs despite not playing to their own standard, and still lost only because Jordan’s game-winning shot attempt from 18 feet rimmed out with just three seconds remaining.

Jordan '91 Finals Game 1

Worthy and Perkins dealt most of the scoring damage, as Magic only had one field goal attempt in the first half, getting his six points exclusively at the line3. This suited Magic’s game anyway, and despite Jordan having a great game at the half; seven assists and making Byron Scott a non-factor when switched onto him, Magic was the one primarily in control of the pace in this first game. He asserted himself even more in the second half, going 4-for-4 from the field, with two of those coming from behind-the-arc, both coming at crucial moments, while also going 3-for-4 from the line. Magic finished with an impressive triple-double, controlled the pace of the game, and facilitated a balanced offense that allowed both Perkins and Worthy to get their shine, as they both finished with 22 points each. Divac put the finishing touches on this best-case scenario win for the Lakers, finishing with 16 points, his series-high 14 rebounds, three blocks and three steals, locking the paint down and making all the Bulls’ best post players he was matched up against a non-factor; proving his worth.

Magic picked up his seventh assist on a pseudo-Showtime fast break at the eleven-minute mark in the third quarter. A little over four minutes later, the Bulls had to call a timeout, as their poor shooting in the quarter had allowed the Lakers to grind out a 61-59 lead. Another two minutes later, after shooting 1-for-3 from the field and 2-for-2 from the line; 5 points total in the quarter, Phil Jackson allowed Jordan to get some rest, as he had only sat for two minutes at that point.

'91 Finals Game 1

The Bulls’ offense continued to sputter without Jordan on the court, as the offensive rebounds they did manage to grab simply led to more contested mid-range jumpers due to a packed paint, most of which the Bulls missed. Magic hit an uncontested three in the Lakers’ half court offense to give the Lakers a 72-68 lead with 29.9 seconds in the third quarter, forcing Phil Jackson to burn another timeout. Michael Jordan checked back in, only to see Paxton miss a jump shot, and then get caught on a pick by Perkins that Cartwright didn’t rotate back over on quick enough, giving Magic enough space to hit another three with the clock at 00.9 seconds. 75-68; tough break.

Pippen picked up his fourth and fifth fouls just a minute into the fourth quarter, forcing Jackson to sit him. Just as the Bulls slowly let the plot get away from them, Michael Jordan struck, scoring six points on 3-for-5 shooting, as well as providing two assists and a rebound, to take a 78-76 lead before Magic slowed down the young Bulls’ momentum once more by facilitating an efficient offense and attacking when necessary. A strong take to the rack by Magic led to another Bulls timeout at the 6:53 mark in the fourth quarter, but more importantly, it gave the Lakers an 80-78 lead.

However, Jordan picked up right where he left off, hitting a jumper to tie the game up right out of the huddle. James Worthy’s final basket of the night ended with him hobbling down the court, seemingly reinjuring the ankle after the commentators pointed out he had begun stiffening up in the third quarter. Jordan continued applying pressure, however, after picking up his fifth foul shortly after Worthy began hobbling, the Bulls became compromised defensively. A back-and-forth affair ended with Pippen hitting a pull-up jumper off-the-dribble from the free-throw line to give the Bulls a 89-86 lead, and forcing Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy to call a timeout with 2:34 remaining.

Perkins must be the one credited with putting the nail in the Bulls, as he was the one who chipped in seven points from Magic’s play-calls in those final two-and-a-half minutes. A tough shot from Jordan at the 23.5 second mark with a chance to take a 93-89 lead missed; Perkins didn’t. The Bulls final points came in the form of a pair of made free throws from Pippen with a minute remaining, and after the aforementioned tough miss on a fadeaway from Jordan, Magic found an open Perkins for the game-winning three after Chicago rotated over to double-team as they had been doing for almost the entirety of the second half. Magic simply posted up in the elbow, waited for an extra defender, and made the right pass.

'91 Finals Game 1

Jordan’s 18 footer rimmed out, and Byron Scott made his second free throw to steal Game 1 from the Bulls, 93-91. Jordan had 36 points on 12-for-24 shooting, 1-for-1 from behind-the-arc and 7-for-9 from the line, 12 assists, eight rebounds, three steals, blanketed Scott alongside Paxton, and forced Magic to play at his absolute best to squeak out a win. You could blame Horace Grant for not getting tough enough down in the post and for shooting 3-for-8 from the field, you could point the fingers at Paxson and Pippen, who shot 3-for-7 and 7-for-19 from the field respectively, but ultimately, Jordan’s look of disappointment after his game-winning shot attempt rimmed out shows he hung that one on his head. Phil Jackson would have to make adjustments, but if his best player is willing to take responsibility for a tough loss at home in the Finals, then this team was always going to be in great shape.

Game 2 – June 5th, 1991

Ah yes, the game that started the myth that Pippen locked Magic down because Jordan was eaten alive in Game 1. More false narratives from uninformed so-called analysts and historians, as Jordan actually guarded Magic up until the four-minute mark of the first quarter. Until that point, the game had been a faster-paced team effort driven by Magic and Jordan’s playmaking abilities. The Bulls were much more aggressive in this game from the opening tip, evidenced by the relentless hustle that resulted in Paxson driving to the hoop and getting two points from a Divac goaltend.

Paxton, Cartwright, and Grant were much more active in the first quarter, hitting their shots, getting open, and providing quality defense. Grant in particular was looking to redeem himself after only being able to contribute on the boards in Game 14. Despite this however, the Lakers were still close behind the Bulls when Jordan picked up his second foul near the four-minute mark of the quarter. The announcers are quick to point out the switch on the ensuing possession after the throw-in, after Pippen batted the ball away from a posted-up Magic. Worthy attempts to post up Cliff Levingston, but has the ball blocked out-of-bounds from behind by Jordan, leading to a 24-second violation by the Lakers when they attempted to pass it in to Divac.

Jordan '91 Finals Game 2

Pippen assumed the primary defensive assignment on Magic for the remainder of the game, and made his presence known on his first full possession of picking up Magic. Up 22-18, Pippen meets Magic in the backcourt, relentlessly checking him and forcing Magic to attempt a strong drive to the basket on the slightly taller, stockier defender; missing the heavily contested layup. The Bulls respond by dishing a quick outlet pass to Jordan, who stops briefly in the half court before driving to the rack, picking up a double-team, and dishing it off to Cartwright for an easy assist. A 28-23 lead by the Bulls after the first quarter was followed up by an evenly matched second quarter where each team scored 20 a piece.

'91 NBA Finals Game 2

The most interesting aspects of this quarter was the defensive match up of Jordan sliding into the low post to prevent Divac from bullying any other member of Chicago’s backcourt on a mismatch, but mostly kept himself as the primary defender on Divac during this stretch. Interestingly enough, Jordan continued playing as the pseudo-point guard even as he continued to defend the post, as he still picked up an assist and a “hockey assist” in the final three-and-a-half minutes while finally attacking the paint to the tune of six points on 3-for-3 shooting after starting off 1-for-2 in the first quarter and the first eight-and-a-half minutes of the second quarter. Of course, Pippen checking Magic is the primary match up to focus on, but since Pippen held his own quite well against Magic, it’s worth noting that Levingston more than fulfilled his role off the bench for the Bulls in both games as the main irritant on Worthy; sometimes Perkins. Pippen was content to let Worthy get open looks from mid-range and post-up at will, while Grant was too hesitant to step in front of a Worthy who was spinning off of him in the low block; Levingston played him straight up, limiting the Lakers offense at times.

A quick, back-and-forth affair in the third quarter led to a blowout win for the Bulls, as the Lakers were simply run off the court in the latter half of the quarter. Worthy showed no signs of fatigue or injury, as his jump shots were the only thing working for the Lakers in this quarter, but this veteran squad lost their composure from Game 1. Magic in particular turned to the refs on at least three occasions because he believed he didn’t get the call after driving to the rim. As such, there’s not much to say or analyze about the game, as Pippen played excellent defense on Magic, allowing Jordan to help out in the low post while arguably having a better game than in Game 1. A 23-10 run after six minutes resulted in Dunleavy calling a timeout at the 2:53 mark in the third, down by 18. They ended the third quarter down by 17, with Jordan scoring 14 points in the quarter and leading the Bulls to a much more aggressive outing than just three nights ago. When Paxson goes 8-for-8 by the end of the quarter, ending his night that way, and when Grant and Cartwright score 20 and 12 on 10-for-13 and 6-for-9 shooting respectively, this Bulls team was going to be impossible to overcome.

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Jordan, Pippen, and Grant remained in the game as Levingston and Scott Williams, who provided extra post defense in increments throughout the game, return to the court. The fourth quarter would see the Bulls go on another run and effectively put the game out of reach. Free from overexertion, Jordan was able to once again consistently probe the defense, racking up 13 assists, and doing a better job at getting his teammates involved, as the team overall had nine more assists than in the first game.

Then of course, there’s the right-left switch. His thirteenth consecutive field goal in this game; one of the most memorable moves and moments in NBA history. The game was over at this moment, even if the Lakers still had to play an additional seven-and-a-half minutes after coming out of the huddle following the timeout called by Dunleavy immediately after the play. Jordan missed the next shot, then made the one after that, and then was sat; 33 points on 15-for-18 shooting, and the paramount play of the series.

Game 3 – June 7th, 1991

The third game in a series often determines how a series will unfold, or so the old adage goes. If that’s true, then everyone had to have known this series wasn’t going to be a seven-game classic after the Bulls pivotal eight-point victory on the road in a tied series. In fairness, it was the best game of the series, with both teams giving and receiving their best, but at the end of the day, Michael Jordan took over the game when it mattered the most.

'91 Finals Game 3

After starting off 0-3 to start the regular season, the Bulls never lost more than two games throughout the remainder of the regular and postseason. They only lost back-to-back games on three other occasions, and had suffered only their second defeat in the postseason in Game 1 of the Finals. I say all that only to highlight the reason all that success was possible due to the Bulls newfound dedication to relentless defensive pressure. Their seventh place finish in defensive rating during the regular season was the highest it had been since the Bulls miraculously finished third in Jordan’s Herculean Defensive Player of the Year season in 1987-88, when then head coach Doug Collins was content with running The Michael Jordan System, while also playing at the slowest pace in the NBA that year. That same year was Pippen and Grant’s rookie seasons; far cries from what they would soon become, with both of them seeing limited action off the bench. Jordan was 24, and carrying a team of big guys anchoring the post and allowing him to play “free safety” around the court, within the guidelines of the NBA’s strict man-to-man defensive rules of the era of course.

After this year, the defense dropped back down, but a core had found itself amongst Collins’ direction. Four seasons later, this Bulls team was experienced, everyone had accepted their roles, better players were added to fill out the roster, Jackson was inserted as head coach, and everyone was hungry for a championship. What good of a chance did Magic stand if this Bulls team that had become the first ranked defensive team during the 1991 postseason was shutting down his entire second unit and constantly pressuring him?

The Lakers came out much more aggressively at home than at any point in Chicago. They came out fast to counter punch the Bulls in Game 2, but they were not dictating the pace like Magic had done in the slow-paced Game 1. We saw the younger Bulls run the Lakers off the court, with Jordan heading the cavalry. This time, the Lakers would be the ones to effectively run the break and get the crowd involved in the game. A packed paint led to reduced scoring chances for Jordan, who surprisingly looked for his shot early in this game. Magic returned the favor, popping a few mid-range jumpers quickly into the shot clock. Worthy once again showed no signs of injury, scoring 10 of his 19 points in the first quarter, shooting 5-for-5 while doing so.

This led to some frustration by the Bulls, as Jordan was forced to bark out orders and keep everyone on the same page to keep the Lakers from running away with the momentum. Despite the popular belief that Pippen primarily guarded Magic after Game 1, Jordan was the primary defender on Magic in this game. Magic often posted up in the elbow against Jordan in Game 1, and was successful in making comfortable passes to his teammates who feasted on Bulls’ defenders, while also providing space and making smart passes to shooters. Pippen drained on Magic in Game 2, so obviously he would guard him going forward right? Actually, Jordan allowed Magic to do more of the same in this game, even letting him drive to the basket and apply additional pressure more often than he had in the previous two games. Magic ended the game with 22 points, but went 7-for-15 while turning the ball over five times compared to only 10 assists, tying Game 2 as his series-low.

The reason for this was to make it easier for Jordan to conserve energy for offense, as the Bulls’ big men had to be held more accountable for protecting the paint. After two quick scores from Magic early on, they did a much better job of covering up the space that Magic was given to work with. Cartwright and Divac cancelled each other out, so with Grant stepping up and continuing on the momentum he gathered in Game 2, having his best game of the series in Game 3 with a series-high 22 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists, it made the Bulls a tough team to beat even with Jordan shooting 11-for-28 from the field overall and Pippen having a quiet all-around game while flirting with foul trouble.

'91 Finals Game 3

A 48-47 lead by the Bulls at the half was only made possible by their smothering defense, as they closed the early gap in the second quarter fast by simply slowing the game down, grabbing boards, and getting physical while maintaining control in transition defense. Magic scored 13 and Worthy had 15 by the half, but unfortunately for them, being blanketed by the Bulls’ perimeter defense saw Scott missing wide open mid-range jump shots, even when he wasn’t being guarded by Jordan on a rotation or switch. He would remain scoreless throughout the game, unable to form any semblance of confidence.

Pippen would only switch onto Magic once in the first half, and Jordan would remain as the primary defender in the second half. Perkins became more aggressive in the third quarter, as would Divac. Magic looked to get the other two members of the starting line-up more involved in the offense, and the balanced Lakers attack looked to be simply overwhelming at a certain point in the game, as the Bulls shot poorly, looked uncomfortable, and became too Jordan-centric. Jordan slid down into the post in the first half several times to help out with Divac, as Cartwright also flirted with foul trouble, but this time the Lakers actually tried to take advantage of the size mismatch, and got Divac into good positions to back down a smaller defender. As a result, Jordan switched back onto Magic after a few minutes helping in the post, preventing Magic from running by Pippen or assisting Divac into a favorable position with his back to the basket.

The Bulls’ depth allowed them to overcome a 18-2 run, and a 13-point deficit at the 4:46 mark in the third quarter. The Lakers were only able to consistently rely upon seven players, and after they’ve given the Bulls everything they can, by the end of the game, that team is going to be tired. The Bulls had role players who were at least able to plug themselves into the team defense, rebound, and get fouled; always giving the Bulls a legitimate opportunity to slow down the Lakers offense, make things ugly, and chip at the lead. There was no secrets in how the Bulls closed the gap, as they played the Lakers straight up for the duration of the quarter, and closed the quarter out down six; 72-66. Jordan only shot 1-for-7 from the field in the quarter; 4 points total. That’s all you need to know that championships are not won by statistics alone.

'91 Finals Game 3

Constant attempts to trap Magic were carried out by multiple Bulls defenders, and it obviously aided in the Bulls keeping them to 25% shooting from the field in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter. Despite the Bulls shooting 48.2% overall compared to the Lakers 50.6%; Jordan scored his points when his team needed them at the most crucial moments. In order to get to that moment however, first they had to clamp down and tie the game up, which they did after a block by Levingston led to Jordan leading the break for an easy dish to Pippen at the 8:42 mark in the fourth. Jordan sat at the four-minute mark after playing all but one minute, and struggled to get his shot going. After a dunk by Pippen, the Bulls led 80-78 with 3:55 to go.

A strong post presence and strong rebounding by Grant and Pippen, who had his series-high in rebounds with 13 this game, allowed the Bulls to take an 88-84 lead, but Pippen picked up his fifth foul, sending Magic to the line with 2:54 remaining in the game. Jordan checked back in after Magic hit one free throw; 88-85. Both teams battled until Magic fed Divac in the restricted area with 10 seconds remaining during a mad scramble, and the big man repaid him by converting the shot and the free throw after being fouled by Pippen. Six fouls meant Pippen was out of the game, and with 10 second left, things were looking grim for Chicago.

I’d like to think that shot speaks for itself. Jordan single-handedly took the ball down court against great pressure, with the defense knowing he’d be the one to take the shot, without Pippen to assist him, and made the shot with Scott on his hip and Divac stepping up and extending every inch of his length to block Jordan’s seemingly effortless game-tying shot. The Lakers bungled their next possession, and went into overtime with an advantage, as the announcers pointed out the Lakers had a 3-3 record in OT throughout the season, while the Bulls were 0-2. It didn’t matter, as after a three-minute defensive battle, Jordan and the Bulls, sans Pippen, overwhelmed the Lakers, who lost Divac to his sixth foul late in the overtime period. The Bulls surged to a 12-4 overtime score; 104-96 overall, and a 2-1 lead in the Finals.

Game 4 – June 9th, 1991

A lackadaisical effort by the Bulls overall resulted in a 14-point victory. Only Magic and Divac were able to do anything against this stringent Bulls defense, and the Bulls younger legs were the primary reason behind this comfortable victory. These key points made by the studio and the announcers both boil down to the point I’m trying to make; Jordan and the Bulls executed while taking away all of Magic’s best options.

Jordan continued guarding Magic, heavier in this game than in Game 3, but still allowed him to roll right off the block in an effort to catch Magic in the rotation. Cartwright was able to get involved early, scoring eight of his series-high 12 points in the first quarter, and much like in Game 2 when he was able to open up early and score 12 points, the Bulls began operating too efficiently on both ends of the floor. Jordan continued terrorizing Scott without much effort, taking and making his first shot at around the seven-minute mark in the first quarter; content with letting his teammates make plays and get themselves involved as they grind it out with the Lakers to a 28-27 deficit by the end of the first. This one point Lakers lead was mostly due to A.C. Green’s hustle play, as his additional offensive rebounds and energy off the bench sparked the team to close an early nine-point gap, and help his team take the lead at the end of the quarter.

'91 Finals Game 4

Unfortunately for the Lakers, four of Worthy’s six made field goals came in the first quarter, where he shot 4-for-6. He ended the game 6-for-16, and by the way, Perkins also shot atrociously from the field this game, going 1-for-15 in a must-win game at home. Hodges, Williams, and Levingston all check in as only Green checks in from the Lakers bench, leaving the Lakers incredibly vulnerable as Magic sat with 9:39 remaining in the quarter. Jordan sat at the nine-minute mark, leaving Pippen and Grant to lead the team as the Bulls floor-spacing guards shot well on the break and in the half court during the two-minute stretch that Jordan and Magic sat, going on an 8-2 run.

'91 Finals Game 4

After trading some baskets and mostly clamping each other down, Jordan hit a jumper at the buzzer to give the Bulls a 52-44 lead at halftime. I wish there was some more analysis I could provide for the third quarter, but it was much of the same as during that nine minute stretch in that second quarter. Just looking at the total box score, you can see the Bulls scored 25 and 22 points in the second and third quarters, compared to the Lakers only scoring 14 and 16. If there was ever a time to prove you had another level to elevate yourself to, it was in the third quarter of this game. Alas, the Lakers operated largely the same as they did in the second quarter, allowing the Bulls to increase the lead without Jordan having to score over 30 points for the second consecutive game in the series, although this time it came on eight fewer shots, and not needing to force the issue as much as Game 3, where he also had his series-low in assists with nine.

Worthy went to the locker room5 after chucking up bricks all throughout the third quarter, being one of the reasons the Lakers weren’t operating as efficiently as they should have been considering Magic was out there still setting up plays and moving the ball to the open man. He was reported to have re-aggravated his ankle injury, and unfortunately for the Lakers, never returned to the court for the remainder of the series. It’s likely the ankle began to stiffen up on him in that quarter, resulting in most of his missed shots, but I am unable to point out when specifically he would’ve re-aggravated it. It could’ve been anything really; another tough break for this thin Lakers rotation.

This slideshow above illustrates the Lakers best chance to regain momentum, as Magic unabashedly posted up Jordan despite how well the Bulls’ rotation had guarded the spin move this game. However, in the latter half of the game, with the Lakers scoring consecutive baskets for the first time in a long stretch, Magic posted up Jordan, drove through the steal attempt, met Levingston, and still finished the layup. After the free throw, the Lakers were now on a 7-0 run, and down by nine with just over eight minutes left in the game. The Bulls quickly ended that momentum, and worked them into a stalemate for the remainder of the quarter; 24-23 Lakers.

Jordan stopped the next Magic post-up opportunity, and then just over a minute-and-a-half later, Pippen closed the game by guarding Magic for the remaining six minutes. Scott slipped on a wet spot on the floor trying to get around Pippen in the backcourt, and the effects were noticed immediately on his shoulder. Divac stepped up in this game, ultimately proving himself to be the second-best player on this Lakers team during the series. He had a natural 27 point, 11 rebound performance that would normally assure a Lakers victory had anybody else besides Magic scored 22 points, or if the team as a whole shot better than 36.6% from the field.

'91 Finals Game 4

Game 5 – June 12th, 1991

Being down 3-1 is never easy, but to the Lakers credit, they didn’t give up. They brought the intensity from Game 3 and kept it throughout the game, clinging onto the chance at a Game 6. Divac remained active at the basket, and Terry Teagle proved to be more effective in the first quarter of Game 5 than Scott did at any point of the series. Unfortunately, their thin rotation was reduced even further by the Worthy injury, but A.C. Green did his best to bring his energy off the bench in the limited minutes he was given during this series and bring it to the starting line-up.

Jordan played passively in the first quarter, not looking to get his shot going, or even necessarily get an assist. He ended the game with 30 points and 10 assists, but from the opening tip it was obvious this game was going to be about his teammates, as he facilitated the ball throughout the quarter and only looked to shoot when wide open. The Bulls won Game 4 behind a complete team effort, with the scoring staggered evenly amongst the other members of the starting five after Jordan’s 28. Paxson would be the one to start the scoring effort in this game, as his intensity and craftiness led to him scoring the first six points the Bulls scored.

Divac would get into Paxson’s face, but that really only led to the Bulls closing the last two minutes out by snuffing multiple Lakers possessions, and then quickly taking it the other way for a dunk or a trip to the line. Magic did his best to get to the line and stop their momentum, but with Elden Campbell and Tony Smith unable to beat the aggressive traps of the Bulls defense, and no Worthy to bail him out with any spacing, he was only able to get to the line once. Careless ball-handling and missed scoring chances led to the Bulls being up two after one quarter of play.

'91 Finals Game 5

The second quarter would see more of the same from both teams, as Jordan scored primarily on breakaway dunks after a steal, and that’s where Pippen would find a majority of his points as well. The pair led an aggressive perimeter defense that frustrated the Lakers starters, who were bailed out by strong performances from guys being plugged in off the bench. Teagle went at Paxson and Jordan harder than Scott did, and actually made them work by making some shots. The Bulls guards off the bench, Hodges and B.J. Armstrong, came in briefly to spread the floor for a Pippen hellbent on getting to the rack, where he scored seven of his 13 points for the half, since he actually shot rather poorly from the field. Paxson connected on his shots, dropping 20 for the game by simply continuing to do his job sliding into the open area that the Lakers backcourt would grant him, and hit his jumpers. He received his series-high 12 shot attempts in this game, and connected on nine of them, heavily contributing to the Bulls 53.8% field goal percentage for the game.

Jordan had not pressed the issue, mostly looking to play shutdown defense on Magic, generate turnovers, facilitate the ball, and score when necessary. He scored 18 in the second half to end up with 30 for the third time this series, but Pippen also chipped in with 19 more points on much more efficient shooting than in the first half. He ended the game as the Bulls leading scorer with his series-high 32 points, but it was the way he nullified Divac this game that really made his performance stand out; 8 points on 4-for-12 shooting and 7 rebounds was all Divac could contribute.

Campbell and Smith continued to shoot well, as Campbell actually led the Lakers in scoring at the half with 12; ending with 21 on 9-for-12 shooting, but with Pippen on Divac and Jordan responsible for Magic, Campbell was allowed to do whatever he wanted as Grant was more concerned with keeping the paint better protected alongside Cartwright. After a close battle between Magic and Jordan to start the quarter, the Bulls began running the open court with Jordan and Pippen once more. A rare three-pointer connects6 for the Lakers from a Magic pull-up, but the Bulls continue to operate the break effectively, and run Pippen down the court for easy dunks against a flat-footed, tentative Lakers squad. Magic continued to fight as if they had a shot; drawing up plays, driving to the rim when necessary and kicking it out to the open man, but his 20 assists wouldn’t be enough when he’s also shooting 4-for-12 from the field. The only starter to crack 20 points would be Perkins, which wouldn’t come until the fourth quarter, and he only shot 5-for-12 from the field, electing to get half of his 22 points at the line.

'91 Finals Game 5

The misleading score to start the fourth would only further fuel the Lakers’ disappointment7 after losing this game, and the series. Relying largely on Campbell and Perkins, who became the sole focus of the offense in the final three-and-a-half minutes, where he scored seven of his 22 points. Knowing Pippen was struggling in the half court, Jordan attempted to take over, and made a few baskets to keep the game close before he was able to consistently find Paxson for open jumpers. That’s when the backcourt duo proceeded to then gain a comfortable lead, and put the final nail in the Lakers. The Bulls final baskets came in the form of a pair of Pippen free throws to give him 32, and Jordan making the second of his final two free throws to give him 30. Jordan blocked the final Magic shot attempt, Pippen recovered it, and then walked down court as the clock ran out.

'91 Finals Game 5

Magic had his second triple-double of the series, but failed to control the pace as he had done in Game 1. His 20 assists would be a series-high, but without any viable scoring threats, he would have to do more than facilitate a compromised offense. Unfortunately for him and the Lakers, the Bulls were just too complete of a team.

Final Analysis

Using hindsight, perhaps this Lakers team wasn’t the great hurdle that many were anticipating going into the series. The Lakers shot 30% from behind-the-arc throughout the regular season, but due to the persistent pressure applied by the Bulls aggressive defense, that percentage was brought down to 28.3%. Even worse, their overall field goal percentage dropped from 48.4% to 44.7%, a significant drop that explains why the Lakers were unable to win close games they realistically had a great shot at winning, despite not being able to execute efficiently for most of the series. Their main ball-handler was harassed by two of the best perimeter defenders of all time, and when Magic is unable to distribute the basketball to viable scoring threats, keep the ball moving and defenses guessing, or simply keep his team composed, then the Lakers didn’t really have anything else to fall back on. Their “old age” is largely overstated, but the versatility and depth that a peak-Showtime Lakers played with certainly was gone. It’s a testament to Magic’s greatness this team wasn’t swept, but it’s also indicative of the type of talent that Jordan possessed to be able to steal Game 3 on the road, and come through for his team every time they needed something to develop.

Michael Jordan was rewarded with a more-than-deserving Finals MVP after averaging 31.2 points on 55.8% from the field, 11.4 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 2.8 steals, 1.8 blocks, all the while playing arguably the best defense on his team and the series. He was the engine that drove the Bulls to the promised land, making sure the team operated at their best in order to fully support his talents. Pippen shot only 45.3% from the field, but after tying his series-high 13 rebounds in Game 5; ended the series averaging a respectable 9.4 rebounds while chipping in with 20.8 points. 6.6 assists and 2.4 steals to go along with an outstanding defensive effort on Magic and Divac. That rounded out the Bulls’ star effort, as from there, the rest of the Bulls were simply asked to do their jobs. Paxson more than showed up against a poor defensive effort from mostly Magic, but also the rest of the Lackers backcourt, as he averaged 13.4 points on 65.3% shooting from the field. Grant averaged 7.8 rebounds and 14.6 points on 62.7% shooting; most of the Bulls’ 52.7% shooting for the series came as a result from these four players.

The Lakers used Magic as an additional rebounder, allowing him to be second in the team in rebounding with an even eight for the series behind Divac’s 8.8. However, despite Divac, Magic, Perkins, and Green all averaging 5.6 to 8.8 rebounds, the Bulls still won the rebounding battle for the series; 39.2 to 35.6. Dunleavy then must be the one held accountable as the main reason the Lakers were unable to extend the series. Perhaps if he had Magic shadow the perimeter harder, Paxson and the other guards off the bench wouldn’t have had so many open looks from mid-range. I know Dunleavy would’ve loved for this team to continue executing their conservative offense from Game 1, but the lack of explosiveness in that game, as well as the drubbing in Game 2, should’ve given Dunleavy the idea to not rely so heavily on Magic to run the offense and get the break started. He did average 12.4 assists, but had 4.4 turnovers and a 22.4% turnover percentage. Perkins in particular never recovered after the overtime loss in Game 3, looking disinterested and unmotivated until the fourth quarter of Game 5, and when Worthy was already missing from that game and Scott had been a disappointment while also getting injured, you have to provide Magic with more to work with.

Far from a classic series, this Finals is still underrated from a critical perspective as it was the first of the Bulls ’90s dynasty, and gave us fascinating match ups. The five game result is slightly misleading, as the games are much closer than expected when you’re told the “washed up Lakers” were “dominated” by a young Bulls squad that saw Pippen “shutting down” Magic for Jordan. I don’t know where these so-called pundits get off on this idea, as the Bulls game plan never really seemed to be focused with shutting Magic down other than in Game 2, when Jackson let Pippen off the leash for practically the entirety of the game. The Bulls’ post defense would often attempt to meet Magic at the rim in rotations after Game 2, but other than some backcourt traps in a full-court press during the first two games, the Bulls usually wouldn’t look to take the ball out of Magic’s hands much after that in the remaining three games, preferring to force Magic into tough shots after slowing down his teammates, or simply making Magic take shots away from his teammates. A hard-fought series, but one that seemed to have an inevitable conclusion once Jordan stole the Lakers’ momentum with the dagger that forced overtime in Game 3.

Editor’s Notes

  1. 26:20
  2. L.A. Times – 6/3/1991 – NBA FINALS : LAKERS vs. CHICAGO BULLS : Perkins Provides Floor Plan : Game 1: His three-pointer with 14 seconds to play lifts Lakers to a 93-91 victory over the Bulls.
  3. 45:29
  4. 10:43
  5. 1:17:44
  6. 56:40
  7. L.A. Times – 6/13/1991 – NBA FINALS : LAKERS vs. CHICAGO BULLS : Bulls’ Decree: Jordan Rules : Game 5: Chicago wins first championship by sweeping at Forum, 108-101, but depleted Lakers go down fighting.

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