It is impossible to watch the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls without viewing them within the context of the contemporary Warriors surpassing their historic 10-loss season. It’s only natural to compare the two teams, and for the virtual entirety of the Bulls’ tenth loss of the season, home against the Indiana Pacers—the only team to beat them twice that year—in the penultimate regular season game, the Bulls looked unworthy of the comparison.
Two playoff-bound teams with nothing left to play for. Reggie Miller was out. Ron Harper was out. The Pacers attempted 41 free throws. Travis Best, then a rookie, looked absolutely unstoppable for long stretches against the favorites, yet finished with just 13 points. After hitting two of his first three, Jordan blew seven of his next eight. Bulls basketball man Jud Buechler—you remember Jud?—played 19 whole minutes. Scottie Pippen looked pretty good, but just pretty good. The Pacers attempted two three-pointers all day, and hit none. They still won. These motherfuckers still won.
This was an ugly, unsophisticated, actively bad game of basketball, featuring two teams it is hard to think much of. Until the final two minutes. With the Pacers already up seven, and Pippen on the bench in sweats to rest up for the playoffs, Antonio Davis was fouled on a fast break. He went to the line for two, shot-putted both his free throws, and one went in. Indiana went up 99-91.
This game happened 20 years ago, and with the passing of time came of the benefit of high-speed internet and hindsight, and so I knew this game would end 100-99 in the Pacers’ favor. The how is what still escaped me, and so I was mildly alarmed when Jordan brought the ball down the court, missed a three that was rebounded by teammate Toni Kukoc, got the ball back behind the arc, and this time buried it to make it 99-94. The United Center got loud, then, and as the Pacers brought the ball back up the court, chants of “Defense! Defense!” erupted from the stands and out of nowhere, we had ourselves what looked like and sounded like and—even 20 years later—what certainly felt like an Eastern Conference Finals game.
The Bulls locked up man-to-man, faceguarding while denying entry passes with arms wide, and I swear to Christ these men were so big and so long that even without Pippen, it felt like they reached out and pulled the court in tighter, in towards them. There was nowhere to go. Best, being guarded by Jordan, could only penetrate into a sea of arms. There was a loose ball, and then Jud came away with it, gave it to the best player in the world who in turn passed it to a trailing Kukoc. Kukoc elevated for three, and it went in, and the Bulls were down two with 1:10 to play, and the whole place shook even harder.
Eddie Johnson—who had been playing in the league since 1981 and was 100 years old by 1995—missed a three. Jordan got the rebound himself; brought it up the left side of the court in that now-trademark, bounding gait; faked a drive; stepped back along the baseline; and buried a fadeaway. Tie game. Travis Best brought the ball back up the court with 45 seconds left. No one called a timeout. The coaches let them play.
Twenty seconds later, Johnson—who came off the bench and only played 12 minutes, yet for some reason was the Pacers’ go-to shooter late—missed again, and again Jordan got the rebound. With the shot clock almost the same as the game clock, he held the ball for the last shot.
Jordan made his move early, and with seven seconds left, jacked a step-back jumper from the top of the key, just inside the arc. It clanged off the rim; the Pacers collected the rebound and sprinted down the floor for the last shot. Somehow, Johnson got the ball on the wing, and with less than a second left took a shot with Jordan in his face. Both men went up; the shot fell way short; and then the ref blew the whistle. Shooting foul on Jordan.
Jordan clearly slapped Johnson’s hand while trying to block the shot, which sparked a wonderful discussion about whether the hand counts as the ball, summing up mid-90s basketball better than anything else could. Only then was a timeout called.
Johnson made one of two, the Bulls desperation play misfired, and that was it. It was one of the best endings I’ve ever seen, and perhaps the most apt example of Jordan’s majesty I’ve ever encountered. Even during a game he finished 9-23, led his team back, and then choked with two terrible decisions in under 10 seconds of a losing effort, the game was played on his terms. More telling, when the Bulls finally decided to play, they dominated. For those two minutes, they were too big, too athletic, too talented, and too urgent for the Pacers—even without Pippen. In those two minutes, the Bulls showed they were best team of all time.
The Bulls dropped just one of 12 Eastern Conference playoff games. In the 1996 NBA Finals, the Bulls busted the SuperSonics’ ass in six. They would’ve beaten this year’s Warriors in five.
This is the tenth and final blog in our series Nearly Perfect, chronicling all 10 regular season losses of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. You can read the introduction here, and the other blogs in the series here.