With sports hitting a grinding halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, stealing the headlines in sports recently has been ESPN’s 10-part documentary series, “The Last Dance”.
The series highlights the 1990’s Chicago Bulls dynasty and their final title in 1998. During the decade, Chicago completed a pair of three-peats. The Bulls won the NBA Finals from 1991 to 1993 and then from 1996 to 1998.
The Bulls were coached by Phil Jackson and had one of the league’s best all-around players in forward Scottie Pippen, but guard Michael Jordan was the unquestioned face of the franchise. Following the first three-peat, Jordan retired for more than a season and a half before returning late during the 1994-95 season.
Over the years, there were significant moments and games between Chicago’s championship teams and the Orlando Magic. In the fourth part of a six-part series, we look back on the first postseason meeting between the Magic and Bulls — the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals:
Setting the Stage
Led by the lethal combination of Anfernee Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal, the Orlando Magic had the best record in the Eastern Conference during the 1994-95 season and were coming off their first win of a playoff series in franchise history. It didn’t come easy, but Orlando had closed the Boston Garden with a pair of nail-biting wins over the Boston Celtics to take the series three games to one.
Chicago was the No. 5 seed in the East, but was propelled by a resurgent Michael Jordan. Jordan came out of retirement with less than 20 games remaining in the regular season. The Bulls had won their first round series over the Charlotte Hornets in four games. During that series, Jordan averaged better than 32 points to go with 6.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists per contest.
Game 1 at Orlando Arena: Orlando 94, Chicago 91
The conclusion of Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals is still arguably the greatest moment in Orlando Magic history. After an alley-oop to Scottie Pippen gave the Bulls a 91-90 lead with less than a minute to play, an untimely turnover appeared to mean doom for the Orlando Magic.
With the shot clock off and the Bulls up one, Jordan dribbled across midcourt before looking over his shoulder. He never saw guard Nick Anderson, who came from behind a stripped the ball. The ball landed in the hands of Hardaway, who led a 2-on-1 break before finding former Chicago forward Horace Grant for the go-ahead dunk with 6.2 seconds remaining.
The Bulls turned the ball over on each of their final two possessions. O’Neal finished with game-highs of 26 points and 12 rebounds for Orlando. Anderson added 20 points in the win. Jordan paced Chicago with 19 points, but on just 8-for-22 shooting.
Game 2 at Orlando Arena: Chicago 104, Orlando 94
For Game 2 of the series, Jordan switched his jersey number from 45 back to his original 23 and the Magic had no answer. Jordan finished the night with 38 points, seven rebounds and four steals to even the series.
Jordan scored 22 points in the second half while Scottie Pippen tallied 22 points for the evening. Chicago shot 51 percent for the game and 6 of 11 from beyond the three-point arc. The Magic, led by O’Neal’s 25 points, were just 3-for-16 from deep. O’Neal added 12 rebounds while Grant finished with 23 points and 15 rebounds in the loss.
Game 3 at United Center: Orlando 110, Chicago 101
The Orlando Magic survived a 40-point performance by Jordan and an early double-digit deficit to beat the Bulls as the series shifted to Chicago and regain the series lead. With the contest knotted at 101 with two minutes to go, the Magic closed the game on a 9-0 run and held Chicago scoreless for the final 2:11.
The comeback was fueled by superb foul shooting by the Magic. The decisive nine points all came from the foul line. A pair of Hardaway free throws with 1:38 to go put Orlando ahead for good. O’Neal finished with 28 points to lead the Magic while adding 10 rebounds.
Anderson tallied 22 points while Grant was an efficient 7-for-10 during an 18-point, 14-rebound night. In addition to Jordan’s 40-point effort, Pippen added 25 points and 12 rebounds for the Bulls in the loss.
Game 4 at United Center: Chicago 106, Orlando 95
The Chicago Bulls closed the first quarter on a 28-7 run to take a 14-point lead into the second quarter and the Magic never were able to regain a lead. Orlando drew even in the third quarter and as close as four in the fourth, but were unable to come up with timely stops or baskets.
Jordan and Pippen finished with 26 and 24 points, respectively, to lead the Bulls. Orlando committed 20 turnovers in the loss. Horace Grant paced the Magic with 21 points and 13 rebounds on a superb 9-for-11 shooting. Dennis Scott added 20 points on 8 of 16 in the loss.
Game 5 at Orlando Arena: Orlando 103, Chicago 95
The Orlando Magic overcame a cold-shooting first half and double-digit early deficit to force Chicago to the brink of elimination. After trailing 50-43 at the break, the Magic shot 70 percent in the third quarter to take a 78-70 lead into the final period. Jordan scored a game-high 39 points for the Bulls, but the rest of his team combined to go just 22-for-61 from the field.
Grant again led the way for the Magic with 24 points to go with 11 rebounds. O’Neal tallied 23 points and a game-high 22 rebounds. Dennis Scott chipped in with 22 points while shooting 5 of 9 from beyond the arc. Hardaway added 19 points and 11 assists.
Game 6 at United Center: Orlando 108, Chicago 102
Trailing by eight with less than three minutes to play, the Orlando Magic closed the contest on a 14-0 run to send the Chicago Bulls home and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. O’Neal got the run started with a sweeping hook before Chicago native Nick Anderson knocked down the three-pointer that drew Orlando within three and the contested jumper that ultimately put the Magic ahead for good.
Down the stretch, the Magic made key free throws while Chicago committed untimely turnovers. O’Neal put the exclamation point on the victory with a fast-break slam. After the contest, former Bulls’ forward Horace Grant was lifted onto the shoulders of his Magic teammates.
O’Neal finished with game-highs of 27 points and 13 rebounds. Hardaway and Scott each tallied 21 points in the victory. As a team, the Magic shot 12 of 24 from deep. Pippen led the Bulls with 26 points and 12 rebounds. Jordan added 24 points in the loss.
The story of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals was ultimately that the Magic found a way. In three of Orlando’s four victories, it trailed with less than three minutes to play. The exception was Game 5.
Entering the series, the Magic were a relatively inexperienced team. With Jordan beginning to return to form and already having three championships under his belt, there were plenty speculating that Chicago would ultimately be too much for Orlando.
From Nick Anderson’s steal late in Game 1 to a 9-0 run to end Game 3 to a 14-0 run to end Game 6, the Magic found a way. It would be the final time that Jordan’s Bulls were knocked off in a playoff series. During the series, Jordan averaged better than 31 points per game, but in the losses, his teammates were unable to provide much help.
During the series, the veteran presence of Horace Grant also proved to be huge for the Magic. A three-time NBA champion with the Bulls, Grant left Chicago to join the Magic that offseason and help a young team full of talent take the next step. Grant not only scored the game-winner in Game 1, but he averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds per game during the series. Grant did so while shooting 65 percent from the field.
Hardaway and O’Neal were also coming of age for the Magic. Each came up clutch down the stretch of contests while sharpshooters Anderson and Dennis Scott provided vital support for Orlando. Although it didn’t come to fruition, the series victory for the Magic gave speculation that the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future would run through the City Beautiful.