To win his first ring, Michael Jordan had to confront his past.
Fresh off finally defeating the hated Bad Boy Pistons, MJ and the Bulls would play their first NBA series against Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. It was everyone’s dream matchup. Jordan vs Magic. Nike vs. Adidas. The greatest scorer against the greatest playmaker. The reigning MVP against the 5-time champion.
At least, that’s how everyone else saw it. To the Carolina Family, this was the 1982 National Championship reunion. Tar Heel vs. Tar Heel. Michael Jordan against James Worthy and Sam Perkins. His Airness vs. Big Game James and Big Smooth. Former Tar Heel teammate Buzz Peterson, interviewed by the Chicago Tribune, commented that “They’re going to go at it. But when it’s all over, I guarantee James and Sam will be at Michael’s house.”
Throw in rookie Scott Williams (a preposterously lucky undrafted free agent who would become part of the Bulls’ first three-peat) and you had quite the slate of Tar Heels squaring off for the title.
For Jordan, the plot is well known. Years of struggling with an inferior supporting cast had given way to three straight playoff defeats to the Detroit Pistons. But 1991 had been different. The Bulls had grown up, Jordan put more faith in his teammates, especially Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, and a 61-win Bulls squad routed the Pistons in a four game sweep to advance to the Finals. Michael Jordan was finally on basketball’s biggest stage.
James Worthy at this point had already seen his share of glory. He had three NBA titles to his name and had won Finals MVP in the Lakers’ latest title in 1988. In his ninth year, Worthy was the leading scorer with 21.4 ppg. His experience reputation for big game performances was one of the reasons the Lakers were slight favorites in the series, despite the Bulls holding homecourt advantage.
Sam Perkins, like Jordan, was hunting his first ring. His first six seasons had been spent as a key member of a strong (and historically underrated) Dallas Mavericks squad, whose high point had come in 1988 when they came up one game short of the Finals, losing Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to the Lakers. Now a Laker, Perkins was a key contributor at the power forward spot, averaging 13.5 ppg and 7.4 rpg.
Game 1: Perkins’ Three Wins It For LA
Chicago’s first ever NBA Finals game ended in heartbreak. Despite a fantastic performance from Jordan (36 points and 12 assists), the Bulls simply couldn’t shake the veteran Lakers.
A question coming in had been how the Bulls would try to match up with the Lakers defensively. The Bulls opted to alternate Jordan and Paxson on Magic and put Scottie Pippen on Worthy. It backfired: Magic had a triple-double and Worthy outplayed Pippen to score 22 points. Perkins had 22 of his own, the last of which came on a clutch three with 14 seconds left. His unlikely three (Perk’s perimeter game developed more in his later years) gave the Lakers a one point lead.
Jordan had a shot to win it but is 18-footer rimmed out. A Byron Scott free throw tacked on another point and Pippen’s last second heave from halfcourt hit back iron. The Lakers stole Game 1 93-91, leading many to believe that this was their series to lose. Not so Michael Jordan, who famously said “Perk hit a shot he’ll never hit again and we’re getting ready for Game 2.”
Game 2: MJ Puts “The Move” On The Lakers
Jordan’s confidence was well-founded. The Bulls romped in Game 2, delivering a 107-86 beatdown. Jordan was again spectacular, scoring 33 points and tallying 13 assists. Two of his points came on the famous “Move” when he changed hands in air to avoid a Perkins block that never came. Scott Williams made his most memorable contribution to the series by throwing up his arms in amazement as the shot fell in. That layup capped a stretch where the Bulls scored a preposterous 13 consecutive field goals. LA never had a chance after that.
Another key factor was that the Bulls switched defenses, putting Pippen on Magic to great success; Magic only had 14 points and 10 assists on the night. Worthy once again got his (24 points) but Horace Grant got the better of Perkins, scoring 20 points to his 11. The series now headed to LA tied.
Game 3: Jordan Comes Up Clutch
Game 3 was the best of the series. The Lakers still held the upper hand, courtesy of their Game 1 victory, but the Bulls came to Inglewood determined to steal the homecourt back. What ensued was a terrific back-and-forth thriller that saw both teams trade double digit leads in the second half. A Vlade Divac three-point play gave the Lakers a two-point lead in the dying seconds, but Jordan (who had struggled much of the night) hit a game-tying floater with 3.4 seconds left, sending the game to overtime.
In OT, His Airness scored 6 of Chicago’s 12 points, allowing the Lakers just 4, and the Bulls successfully regained homecourt advantage with a 104-96 win in LA. Jordan finished with 29 points, 9 boards, and 9 assists. Perkins had his best game of the series, going for 25 and 9, while Worthy finished with 19.
Game 4: Big Smooth’s Bad Night
Out of respect for Sam Perkins, there will be no video of this game.
Remember how painful it was watching Harrison Barnes struggle in the 2016 Finals? Compress that into one game and you’ve got Sam Perkins in Game 4. Sleepy Sam had an all-time clunker of a night, going 1-15 from the field. It couldn’t have come at a worse time: Worthy and Byron Scott both left the game with injuries and, despite great performances from Magic and Vlade Divac, the Lakers couldn’t handle the Bulls without a third scoring option.
Jordan had another great night, going for 28 and 13, but his supporting cast really made the difference, with all five Bull starters finishing in double figures. That balance led to a breezy 97-82 victory that left little doubt about who the NBA Champion would be.
Game 5: Pippen and Paxson Help MJ To The Summit
Worthy and Scott were out for Game 5, seemingly leaving the red carpet rolled out for Chicago. But the Lakers got terrific performances off the bench from Elden Campbell and Tony Smith, who combined for 33 points to keep the Lakers in it nearly all the way. MJ went for 30 and 10 but it was the brilliant play of Scottie Pippen (32 points, 13 boards, and 7 assists) and the second half shooting of John Paxson (20 points) that pushed the Bulls across the finish line.
Perkins rediscovered his shot, scoring 22 points on 5-12 shooting, but it was too little too late. Just as Lebron once faced the never-ending questions about his ability to win the Big One, so did MJ, believe it or not. But the demons were forever exorcised: Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were NBA champions at last.