The Last Dance: MJ's Toughest NBA Finals Opponents
USA TODAY Sports
With ESPN dropping the highly anticipated “The Last Dance” documentary, we’ve been able to view some incredible behind-the scenes moments through Michael Jordan’s last season for the Chicago Bulls.
The 1997-98 season culminated in a sixth and final ring for Jordan, with another epic NBA Finals performance against a worthy opponent: the Utah Jazz, led by John Stockton and Karl Malone.
Throughout Jordan’s career, spanning six NBA Finals wins, His Airness and the Bulls have faced off against some of the best players in NBA history. Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Gary Payton, Stockton and Malone have all been eclipsed on basketball's grandest stage by the G.O.A.T; but which team was the very best squad laid to waste by the Jumpman and his dynastic Bulls?
6. 1990-91 Los Angeles Lakers
The last of the “Showtime” Lakers teams, this edition of the Purple and Gold was still led by Magic Johnson in what would be his last season. Magic finished runner up in the NBA MVP position (behind Jordan) as the Lakers experienced their first season under coach Mike Dunleavy.
With the team having a sharp defensive focus, both Magic and James Worthy were named NBA All-Stars. Worthy led the team in scoring with 21.4 PPG, while Magic posted a regular season stat-line of 19.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 12.5 assists per game.
These Lakers were strong in their playoff run, beating the Houston Rockets 3-0 and the Golden State Warriors 4-1 before becoming Western Conference Champions, after a 4-2 series upset win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
After winning the first game in Chicago, 93-91, off a Sam Perkins three-pointer, hopes were high in L.A. that their Lakers could have one last title with this “Showtime” team.
This clearly wasn’t meant to be, as the Bulls ripped off three consecutive wins, punctuated by a 104-96 overtime win in Game 3 to give Chicago a 3-1 lead.
Facing elimination without Worthy and Scott due to injury, Magic delivered 16 points, 20 assists and 11 rebounds to will his Lakers to within striking distance. However, Scottie Pippen’s 32 points and Jordan’s 30 were enough for a 108-101 win and their first NBA championship title.
Outside of Magic, Worthy and a young Vlade Divac, the Lakers struggled to get help out of their rotation against a rampaging Jordan, in what was perhaps his finest NBA Finals performance ever.
5. 1991-92 Portland Trail Blazers
After being knocked over by the Lakers in the previous year’s Western Conference Finals, Portland returned with a vengeance, winning their second straight Pacific Division championship with a 57-25 record.
Clyde Drexler led the way for the Trail Blazers, averaging 25.0 points, 6.7 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game, making the All-NBA First Team, the NBA All-Star Game and finishing second in the MVP race to Jordan.
Buck Williams made the All-NBA Defensive Second team, while Kevin Duckworth, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, and bench shooters Clifford Robinson and Danny Ainge rounded out this Trail Blazers squad.
In fact, this depth was what gave Portland a supposed edge over Chicago, with the Bulls supporting cast of Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant and John Paxson not as strong as Portland’s lesser lights.
After taking the revenge on the Lakers with a 3-1 first round series win, Portland moved on in the playoffs defeating the Phoenix Suns 4-1 and the Utah Jazz 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals.
This run set up a duel between Jordan and Drexler, as the media endeavoured to craft a rivalry similar to the decade’s previous battles between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Despite getting destroyed in Game 1, 122-89 - the game where Jordan delivered his famous “shrug” - the Blazers fought back in Game 2, securing a 115-104 lead to split the series heading into Portland and giving Chacago their worst home defeat in an NBA Finals game.
Jordan and the Bulls fired back win Game 3 in Portland, 94-83, despite Drexler’s immense 32 point performance. To add another twist in the tale, the Trailblazers were able to take Game 4 with a nail-biting 93-88 win, in a thriller where Drexler and Kersey scored 21 points apiece.
In the last encounter in Portland, the Bulls led from the jump and recorded a strong 119-106 win behind an incredible 46 points from Jordan and a near triple-double performance from Pippen.
Facing elimination, Portland started strong, with Game 6 being a see-sawing encounter with various runs amidst strong performances from Drexler and Jordan. However, the the Bulls would hold Portland to a mere six points in the game’s final four minutes, helping secure their second consecutive NBA championship.
Drexler was immense in the series, averaging nearly 25 points while leading an electric, fast-paced Portland offense that was unstoppable in transition. However, Chicago’s defense was a major key in this series win, highlighted by the Bulls holding Portland to a franchise playoff-low 84 points in Game 3.
With Jordan securing a second consecutive Finals MVP after averaging 35.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game, a very good Portland team was still, undeniably, at the mercy of MJ and a very well-rounded Bulls team.
4. Seattle Supersonics
One of the more exciting teams of the 90s, the Seattle SuperSonics posted a franchise record 64-18 regular season finish, ending as the one seed in the Western Conference. Led by the Defensive Player of the Year in Gary Payton, and Shawn Kemp (with both having been selected to the 1996 All-Star Game), this Sonics team was a defensive juggernaut.
Balanced by the scoring prowess of newly acquired sharpshooting guard Hersey Hawkins and the versatile Detlef Schrempf, George Karl led this team past the Sacramento Kings 3-1, before sweeping the reigning champion Houston Rockets 4-0, and finally fighting past the Utah Jazz 4-3 to be crowned Western Conference Champions.
Going up against a 72-10 Chicago team that is widely considered to be one of the best teams in NBA history, and one that had lost to the Orlando Magic in the second round of the playoffs, things set up for a fantastic NBA Finals series.
This Sonics team prided itself on shooting, with big men Schremph and Sam Perkins both shooting above 40 percent from 3-point range, helping spread the floor for Payton and Kemp to wreak havoc.
Facing arguably the best regular season team of all time, Seattle went into Chicago looking to blow the Bulls out of the building with their sharpshooting and attempting to steal a game on the road. However, Chicago's defense was elite in Game 1, holding Payton and Schrempf to a combined 26 points en route to a 107-90 win.
After starting strong in Game 2, Seattle’s poor second-half cost them the game, in spite a serious fourth-quarter comeback attempt. Despite Kemp firing on all cylinders with 29 points and 13 boards, the Bulls were able to win 92-88.
After getting blown out by 22 points in their first game at home, the Sonics looked like they were on the verge of a disappointing NBA Finals appearance.
However, on the back of elite play from Kemp and Payton, alongside the return of Nate McMillan, the Sonics finally got on the board with a 107-86 win in Game 4.
That strong play continued into Game 5 in Chicago, holding the Bulls to 78 points and pulling away with the 89-78 win. Having stepped up their play in a major way, Payton admitted Seattle's relative lack of preparation: “we should have come with this a little earlier.”
Facing elimination for a third time, the Sonics were unable to stop a dominant Dennis Rodman on the boards, who pulled in an NBA Finals-record 11 offensive rebounds to help Chicago secure another championship with an 87-75 win.
Jordan secured another Finals MVP on the back of a stat-line that included 27.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game, while Shawn Kemp’s 23.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game line was shadowed by the losing effort.
Despite being a regular-season juggernaut, the Sonics electric offense ultimately couldn’t fire when it mattered most, and were thus thoroughly stifled by the Bulls in the 4-2 Finals loss.
3. Phoenix Suns
After Charles Barkley joined Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle, the Phoenix Suns had an immediate uptick in form, finishing the 1992-93 season with a franchise record 62 wins.
Barkley won the 1992-93 NBA MVP award based off his elite play, averaging 25.6 points (on 52 percent shooting), 12.2 rebounds and a career-high 5.1 assists per game, while also being selected for his seventh straight NBA All-Star Game.
To go with Barkley, sharpshooter Danny Ainge joined the Suns, alongside draftees Oliver Miller and Richard Dumas, to give the Suns a well-rounded group that was pure dynamite on the offensive end, ranking first in the NBA.
This Suns team was so productive on offense that seven players averaged above double digit scoring numbers, torching opponents on the floor as they cruised to the one seed in the Western Conference.
Coming back from 2-0 down against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs set the table for a playoff run that was anything but easy.
After tying things up at 2-2 against the San Antonio Spurs, Barkley and the Suns took the next two games to advance to the Western Conference Finals against the Seattle Supersonics.
A back-and-forth round in every sense of the phrase, no team won two games in a row, as Ricky Pierce, first-time NBA All-Star Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton and Sam Perkins pushed the Suns to their limit. With the series on the line at home, Sir Charles went off, pouring in 44 points and adding a whopping 24 rebounds to take the Suns to their first NBA Finals.
Barkley proclaimed it was “destiny” propelling Phoenix toward a first-ever NBA title, but Jordan and the Bulls had other ideas. They set the tone early with a hard-fought 100-92 win in Phoenix in Game 1, with Jordan’s 31 points leading all scorers after a huge 34-20 first quarter that favoured the Bulls.
Game 2 was a much tighter affair, with Chicago’s big second quarter being matched by a Phoenix comeback in the second half. Jordan and Barkley had 42 points each, but it was Pippen blocking Ainge’s 3-point attempt with time winding down that sealed a three point win for the Bulls.
Having lost their first two games at home (the first team ever to do so in an NBA Finals series), the situation was dire for the Suns. What followed in Game 3 was an instant classic, with this game going to triple overtime. Phoenix head coach Paul Westphal made the critical decision to have Johnson guard Jordan, which improved the struggling Johnson’s overall play for the series.
The Suns point guard played an incredible 62-minute game, in what was the second triple-overtime clash in NBA Finals history. Dan Majerle’s six 3-pointers (a then-NBA Finals record) combined with Barkley’s 24 points and 19 boards helped get the Suns across the line 129-121, despite Jordan’s 44 point effort.
The Bulls didn’t take too kindly to the triple-overtime loss, bouncing back behind a dominant 55 point performance from Jordan that erased a Barkley 32-point triple double, and securing a 111-105 win.
Again facing elimination, Johnson and rookie Dumas stepped up for Phoenix, scoring 25 points each to go with Barkley’s 24 points, which helped secure a 108-98 win. Jordan went off again with 41 points, continuing his remarkable Finals series, but Phoenix did enough to stay alive.
Down 3-2 heading back home, Phoenix went down early 37-28 in the first quarter, but staged an unlikely revival to storm back in the final quarter and take the lead 98-96. Buried by a John Paxson 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds left and Horace Grant blocking a game-winning shot from Johnson, Phoenix lost the series 4-2 in heartbreaking fashion.
Despite the result, the Suns were tremendous in their uphill climb after being down 0-2 and heading on the road. Barkley was white-hot during the series, averaging 27.3 points and 13.0 rebounds, while being capably supported by Johnson, Majerle and Dumas.
However, Jordan’s ridiculous 41.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game stat-line - when paired with shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range - was one of the most impressive NBA Finals series performances the league had ever seen. Becoming the first player ever to win three straight NBA Finals MVP awards during the Bulls’ first three peat was a landmark occasion; one that proved just how great Jordan was, despite Barkley and the Suns’ excellent play.
2. 1997-98 Utah Jazz
Now we come to the team who is on the other side of “The Last Dance”; a Utah Jazz squad looking for retribution after the previous year’s failure.
Similar to the Bulls, the Jazz’s squad was highlighted by stars who were closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. John Stockton, 35 years old, missed the first 18 games of the season with a knee injury.
With Karl Malone (34), Jeff Hornacek (34) and Stockton playing the most minutes on the roser, the Jazz still managed to secure the number one seed in the Western Conference with a 62-20 record.
While Stockton and Hornacek had started to slow down, the Mailman still managed to average 27.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, helping lead the number one offense in the NBA. However, the Jazz’s defensive rating had dropped from 9th overall in the previous season to 17th - a stark decline on the less glamorous end of the court.
Rather than breezing through the playoffs, the Jazz had to fight back from 2-1 down in the first round to the 8th seeded Houston Rockets, before ultimately winning in five games. From there, the Jazz improved, defeating San Antonio 4-1 and sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers to book a date with the Bulls.
Many predicted the Jazz would take revenge against the Bulls, with Chicago two days removed from a gruelling seven game series win against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Game 1 went down to the wire, with the Jazz prevailing in OT, 88-85, behind Stockton’s 24 points and eight assists after Scottie Pippen missed a game tying 3-pointer.
The Bulls came back strong in Game 2, stealing a 93-88 win after a game-deciding 23-15 fourth quarter, and a game-high 37 points from MJ. This was their first win against Utah all season, proving to be an immense momentum shift in the series.
These first two games in Utah were also highlighted by Malone’s shooting struggles, missing easy layups and not having the same level of production that was required to lead the Jazz to a championship.
With the series shifting to Chicago, Game 3 was one of the most lopsided NBA Finals games in history. With Chicago winning 96-54, the Jazz set the record for the least amount of points scored in an NBA Finals game, and at that time, the lowest scoring total in any NBA game since the shot-clock was introduced.
While that game showed some stronger form from Malone, putting up 22 points on 8-11 field goal shooting, no other Jazz player scored in double figures, with the team shooting an ice-cold 30 percent from the field.
Game 4 proved to be much closer, but Jordan’s 34 points would help Chicago win 86-82 and take a 3-1 series lead. Facing elimination, Utah almost capitulated, losing a seven point lead in the last two minutes of the contest. With the help of Malone’s series-best 39-point effort, the Jazz were able to hold on, 83-81, and force a sixth game in Utah.
Game 6 saw Pippen struggle with his back injury, which was aggravated on a dunk for the first two points of the game. This meant the Bulls were even more reliant on Jordan, who took 35 of Chicago’s 67 shots in 44 minutes of action.
After the Jazz had led 49-45 at halftime and 66-61 heading into the fourth quarter, the Bulls began to rally. Stockton hit a clutch 3-point shot with a mere 41.9 seconds left, giving the Jazz an 86-83 lead, before Jordan’s layup on the next possession cut the lead to one.
His Airness responded on the next possession, stealing the ball from Malone with 18.9 seconds left. After creating separation from Byron Russell (whether illegally or not remains up for debate), Jordan drained the 20-foot jump shot to give the Bulls an 87-86 lead with 5.2 seconds left.
With Stockton missing a game-winning 3-pointer on the other end, the Jazz again crumbled in heartbreak, as Jordan capped the Bulls dynasty off with a sixth NBA championship after sinking one of the biggest shots in NBA history.
1. 1996-97 Utah Jazz
Despite being the last hurdle for Jordan in the NBA Finals, his “Last Dance” partner wasn’t in fact the strongest team he played. That honour goes to a Utah Jazz team led by Karl Malone and John Stockton who were a year younger, posting a franchise best record of 64-18.
Malone took home the MVP award, posting a line of 27.4 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, while making the 1997 All-Star Game alongside Stockton.
Posting the second-best offensive rating in the NBA, Stockton and Malone were unstoppable in the pick-and-roll, with the powerhouse pair and Jeff Hornacek starting all 82 regular season games.
Durability and continuity was the hallmark of this team, with the versatile Byron Russell starting 81 games, Greg Ostertag playing 77 games (with 70 starts), and bench players Atonie Carr and Howard Eisley also playing all 82 games.
Utah’s playoff run started off by knocking over both Los Angeles teams, defeating the Clippers 3-0 and the Lakers 4-1. Things got interesting in the Western Conference Finals, when the Jazz lost two consecutive games to the Houston Rockets, which tied the series up 2-2.
The Jazz managed to take a 96-91 win in Game 5, before an iconic 3-pointer at the buzzer from Stockton secured a 103-100 win to take the Jazz to their first NBA Finals.
In Game 1, the contest went down to the wire, with the Jazz leading 82-81 with under a minute left before Jordan made a free-throw to tie it at 82 with 35 seconds left. Malone followed Jordan to the line, and - psyched out by Pippen - Malone missed both free throws before Jordan delivered the game-winning jumper to give the Bulls the W in a a nail-biter.
In Game 2, the Bulls dominated the Jazz, controlling the game after the first quarter; Malone struggled badly, making 6 of 20 from the field. Despite being down 2-0, the Jazz fired back at home, with Malone posting 37 points and 10 rebounds in a 104-93 win in Game 3.
Game 4 was a much tighter encounter, before Stockton’s brilliant play at both ends culminated in an assist to Malone for a lead that wouldn’t be relinquished. A 12-2 run helped the Jazz tie the series at 2-2 with a 78-73 win.
What followed in Game 5 was one of Jordan’s most iconic performances, known to all as “The Flu Game”, as His Airness started the game visibly low on energy.
After the Jazz got out to a 16-point lead in the second quarter, Jordan began to sink shots and help the Bulls cut the lead to four at the half. After the Jazz got out to an eight-point break, Jordan scored 15 points in the fourth quarter to trim Chicago's deficit to 86-85 with 46.4 seconds left.
After Jordan ties the game at the free throw line, his second free throw misses, before an offensive rebound leads to a Jordan 3-pointer that give the Bulls the 88-85 lead with 25 seconds left. As dunks were exchanged, Stockton missed a crucial free-throw to ensure Chicago would win Game 5 90-88.
Going back to Chicago, the Jazz - facing elimination - restricted the Bulls to 37 first half points, with Utah leading by nine early in the fourth quarter. This is where Chicago started to fight back, going on a 10-0 run to take their first lead since the first quarter.
After Jordan’s jumper was answered by a Russell 3-pointer, scores were tied at 86 with under two minutes left. Shandon Anderson missed a layup, and while Jordan was double-teamed, he found Steve Kerr to bury the jumpshot. Despite five seconds left on the clock for the Jazz to seal the game, Pippen stole the ball away from Russell’s inbound pass, leading to a Toni Kukoč dunk and the championship-clinching 90-86 lead.
These were some of the most nail-biting games of the Bulls’ NBA Finals run, with Jordan hitting numerous go-ahead shots in the series where he was named NBA Finals MVP for the fifth time.
Perhaps if Malone (who averaged 23.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game for the series) had another stronger scoring partner (like Pippen was for Jordan), or had slightly more big-man depth, they may have wrestled the title from Jordan’s grasp.
Despite this, the 1996-1997 Jazz definitely gave Chicago their biggest scare in the NBA Finals, sitting comfortably as Jordan’s toughest opponent on the NBA's grandest stage with Stockton and Malone at the peak of their powers.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference