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 fifth part of a six-part series, we look back on the second postseason meeting between the Magic and Bulls — the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals:
Setting the Stage
During the 1995-96 season, the Orlando Magic won a franchise record 60 games, but that was still 12 games fewer than Chicago. The Bulls finished an all-time best 72-10, but through two rounds of the playoffs, the paths for the two teams had been similar.
After sweeping the Detroit Pistons in the first round, the Magic nearly swept the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Orlando won the series in five games with the only Hawks’ victory coming in Game 4.
As for the Bulls, they had swept the Miami Heat in three games before taking down the New York Knicks in five in the second round. Orlando had knocked off Chicago in the conference semifinals the year prior, but during the regular season, the Bulls took three of the four meetings.
The biggest difference for Chicago from the year prior was the addition of controversial forward and rebounding champion Dennis Rodman. Rodman was known not only for ability on the glass, but for his tenacious defense against the league’s best big men and slashers.
Rodman had won the NBA’s rebounding title for a fifth straight season while Jordan led the league in scoring at 30.4 points per game while earning his fourth league MVP. For Orlando, Shaquille O’Neal ranked third in the league at nearly 27 points per game. Fellow All-Star Anfernee Hardaway had averaged nearly 22 points per game for the Magic while Dennis Scott set a then NBA record with 267 made three-pointers.
Game 1 at United Center: Chicago 121, Orlando 83
The Orlando Magic had no answer for Chicago in Game 1. The Magic trailed by 16 early, but climbed to within 10 by halftime. Unfortunately for Orlando, it managed just 38 points in the second half while the Bulls shot 55 percent for the game.
Anfernee Hardaway finished with a game-high 38 points while Shaquille O’Neal added 27 points for Orlando. Hardaway made 15 of his 21 field goal attempts; O’Neal was 13-for-21, but the rest of the team combined for just 18 points on 7-for-31 shooting. Michael Jordan led six Bulls in double-figures with 21 points. Dennis Rodman added 13 points and 21 rebounds in the win.
Game 2 at United Center: Chicago 93, Orlando 88
The biggest missed opportunity of the series for Orlando came in Game 2. The Magic led by as many as 18 points and by 15 at halftime in a heartbreaking loss in Chicago. The Bulls again shut Orlando down in the second half, holding the Magic to just 35 points over the final 24 minutes.
After climbing to within two at the end of three quarters, former Orlando guard Steve Kerr put the Bulls ahead for good with a jumper with less than three minutes to go in the game. Jordan scored the final eight points for Chicago in the win and led the team with 35 points in the victory.
O’Neal finished with 36 points and 16 rebounds – both game-highs – but it was not enough. Rodman and Scottie Pippen each recorded double-doubles for the Bulls. Pippen tallied 17 points and 10 rebounds; Rodman recorded 15 points and 12 boards.
Game 3 at Orlando Arena: Chicago 86, Orlando 67
The theme of poor second-half offensive performances continued as the series shifted to Orlando. The Magic were held to a series-low 29 points in the second half and finished the game by shooting less than 34 percent as a team. The Bulls shot just 44 percent, but were 8 of 16 from three-point land.
Pippen led the Bulls with a game-high 27 points on an efficient 11-for-14 shooting. Rodman grabbed 16 rebounds. Hardaway led the Magic with 18 points, but on just 8-for-24 shooting. O’Neal finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds. After leading the Eastern Conference in field goal percentage, the Orlando center shot just 8-for-19 from the field and 1 of 9 from the free throw line.
Game 4 at Orlando Arena: Chicago 106, Orlando 101
As was the case in Game 2, the Orlando Magic raced to a healthy halftime lead only to watch it evaporate in the second half. Orlando had no answer for Jordan, who scored 45 points on 16-for-23 shooting. O’Neal and Hardaway each scored 28 points in the loss. O’Neal was 11-for-13 from the field and 6-for-9 from the charity stripe.
After a three-pointer by Kerr tied the game, Rodman’s free throw late in the third quarter gave the Bulls their first lead. The Bulls opened the fourth quarter on a 21-11 run to put the contest out of reach. The loss came despite the Magic shooting 56 percent from the field. It marked the third time in as many postseason trips that Orlando had been swept.
The biggest differences between the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals were the addition of Rodman and coaching. Whereas the addition of Horace Grant in the offseason the year prior gave Orlando the edge, Rodman served as the great neutralizer.
After averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds against the Bulls in the prior postseason, Grant played just one game before hyper-extending his elbow. Already short a starter, the Magic got little contributions from key role players, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, throughout the series.
Scott set an NBA record for made three-pointers during the regular season, but managed only three the entire series against Chicago. Scott averaged just 7.3 points per game during the series while Anderson missed Game 4 after averaging 8.3 points over the first three games on a dismal 9-for-29 shooting.
As for Chicago, the three-headed monster of Jordan, Pippen and Rodman shined. Jordan and Pippen filled up the box score while Rodman averaged a double-double. During the series, the rebounding champ averaged 11.5 points and almost 16 boards per game.
Over the course of the series, Phil Jackson also flexed his coaching muscles against Orlando’s Brian Hill. The Magic had healthy leads at halftime in two of the four games. Thanks in part to Jackson’s halftime adjustments, the Magic averaged less than 39 points per game in the second half.
The series would not only end a two-year hiatus for Chicago when it came to reaching the NBA Finals, it also ended the Magic’s run as a contender. In the offseason, O’Neal would leave Orlando for the bright lights of Los Angeles and the Lakers. Hardaway would become the face of the franchise, but missed 86 of a possible 164 games over the next two seasons.
As for the Bulls, they would go on to defeat the Seattle Supersonics in the NBA Finals in six games to begin a second three-peat.