In 1998, I was a wide-eyed teenager gawking at the Chicago Bulls as they dramatically fought their way to a sixth championship in a win over the Utah Jazz. Actually, it was more of awe at His Airness to the exclusion (and ignorance) of everyone else on the court. Yep, I was an uneducated bandwagon Jordan fan. I devoured basketball blindly, watching ten men run on the hardwood without knowing the intricacies involved, or the background history.
After so many years, rewatching this pivotal game makes so much more sense.
The recent years of learning the game that much more, along with a better understanding of history allowed me to enjoy this game better. Knowing the storylines behind it (the Finals game format, Pippen’s back issues, how good the Jazz were under Jerry Sloan, the missed call on Eisley’s buzzer three) gives a better appreciation of that final run, the Last Dance as they called it back then.
Understanding ball movement gave a better appreciation of how good the Stockton/Malone Jazz were.
The simple yet indomitable pick-and-roll set, the way Malone was so good on either a roll to the basket or a pop for the jumper. Stockton’s vision and sense of timing, the way he found defensive flaws to deliver the perfect bounce pass or drive for the finish. The way Jazz teammates would capitalise on help defense and make them pay with cuts and open shots.
The way he never ever shirked from physical plays, I love this quote that summed his old-school style up best:
Not only a notorious flopper and iron man, Stockton is often also included on the infamous list of Dirtiest Players by his colleagues. Not a big man by NBA standards, by any means, Stockton was still a mean mofo, feared despite his modest size. Heading into every game, John would target the biggest, baddest dude on the opposition, and first opportunity that presented itself, often on a screen, would drive his knee as hard as he could into that man’s thigh at a full-on clip, giving him a dead leg that was never forgotten.
– Jolly John Stockton Day, Hardwood Paroxysm
The way Malone simply dominated – how do you describe one of the best power forwards ever? The man was sculpted power and moved like a freight train. He could finish with ease, inside or outside. Even without the screen and roll, it was a risk between throwing double-teams at the Mailman and scramble to recover, or risk watching your defender get backed down on the low post and scored on.
Watching the triangle (triple-post) offense being executed is an enjoyment in itself too. The way the ball was not being forced into isolation, but instead flowed from post to post as the Bulls sought to find the best look. The way every player was involved as a decision-maker, the way every pass equalled a good decision and an adherence to the system. The triangle is a huge contrast to the offense of many modern NBA teams, who emphasize high screen-and-rolls, drive-and-kick passes or perimeter swinging to find the three point shot more than anything else, the post well on its way to an eventual demise.
Game 6 was tough. It was a fight to the death, there was no guarantee the Bulls would have won right there. Had Pippen been in better shape, the odds might have been with the Bulls. He was in such bad shape from back spasms however, it was obvious he was a shadow of his normal self, and could not even rebound with ease. Malone was in terrific shape, Chicago’s big men were in foul trouble, and there was no answer to big Karl’s offense in the post.
The Jordan-era Bulls never had a dominant center or point guard, what made things work was a team effort. It was the unselfish ball-sharing the triangle system created, and the stifling defense from the perimeter. It was the advantage of having swingmen like Harper, Pippen and Kukoc – big and quick players that caused frequent mismatches. It was Rodman’s relentless energy on rebounding and defense. It was having role players who did their job; outstanding people like Kerr, Longley, Wennington, Caffey and more. It was Phil’s ability to get the team focused on the moment. It was Tex’s teachings on the triangle and fundamental basketball.
And above all, MJ’s competitive and infectious desire to win that made things possible. The 45-point night, the fatigue from carrying the team in a critical playoffs game. The killer instinct that so many others have talked about, the way an opportune swipe and steal turned this game around and set the stage up for that one moment in NBA history forever, a frozen instant in the halls of legend.