CHICAGO – To make a sports narrative great, a strong antagonist is almost always required.
Bulls’ fans in the 1990s certainly can recall of few of their memorable adversaries of the team as they rose to the top of the NBA and stayed there for a decade.
Who could forget the Pistons’ “rough and tumble” approach to playing Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the late 1980s and early 1990s? Detroit eliminated them in three consecutive playoff series, yet the toughness they added to the group helped them become a dynasty after finally eliminating the Pistons in 1991.
Pat Riley’s New York Knicks were next on the Bulls’ list of rivals in the decade, pushing them to seven games in the 1992 Eastern Conference semfinals with a physical brand of basketball. The Bulls would fall behind 2-0 to the Knicks in the conference finals the next year, but reeled off four-straight wins to advance to the finals.
When Jordan was gone, the Knicks eliminated the Bulls in the second round of the 1994 playoffs, ending their reign as champion. But when “His Airness” returned, the Bulls took control for the remaining dynasty years, including a second round series win in 1996.
The Utah Jazz would have two attempts to dethrone the Bulls in the final two years of the era and pushed them in each series. Yet Jordan always helped his team get the upper hand in back-to-back Finals’ victories, ending the 1998 series with the iconic winning shot in Game 6.
Yet there is another rival who produced some great memories against the Bulls in that era, but sometimes gets overlooked since they met in the playoffs.
“The Last Dance” helped to bring some recognition to the many memorable battles between Jordan’s Bulls and Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers.
The two NBA superstars had a couple of memorable contests both early and late in the decade as the Bulls ascended to the top of the league and the Pacers worked their way up there.
- On March 24, 1991, Indiana’s Chuck Person got angry at a technical foul call and proceeded to kick the ball into the stands in Chicago Stadium, which got him ejected. The Bulls went onto win the game 133-119 for their 26th-straight home victory.
- On February 10, 1993, Miller and Jordan got into a tussle after a hoop, leading a rare fight for “His Airness” during the first quarter of the game at Market Square Arena. Miller was ejected but Jordan was not, yet the league would suspend him a game after a review of the tapes a few days later.
- On January 21, 1994, the teams famously traded last second shots at a game at Chicago Stadium. Miller hit what appeared to be a game-winning three-pointer with .8 seconds remaining in the contest. He’d take a bow at midcourt, infuriating Bulls fans who showered him with boos. Yet Toni Kukoc responded by banking in a three-pointer as time expired to give the Bulls a memorable victory.
Yet the most memorable of the matchups took place in May of 1998, when the teams finally met in the playoffs.
The Bulls won Game 1 and 2 in Chicago in tight contests and the Pacers took Game 3 in Indianapolis. It set up a memorable Memorial Day afternoon at Market Square Arena, when Miller’s heroics topped those of Jordan.
With 2.9 seconds left, Miller shed Jordan on the perimeter, grabbed the pass on the wing, and knocked down a three-pointer with under a second to go. He spun his way down the court after one of the biggest shots of his career, and when Jordan’s three-pointer attempt spun out at the buzzer, the series was tied at 2.
After the Bulls rallied for a Game 5 win, a chance to close the series was denied in Indianapolis. Jordan lost the ball on the final possession with the Bulls down by two and the Pacers’ 92-89 win tied the series at three.
In just their second Game 7 of the dynasty era, the Bulls had their hands full with a confident Pacers’ group. Indiana led by three with just under seven minutes to go, but the hosts wouldn’t be denied, clamping down on defense to pick up an 88-83 victory.
The lead-up to the contest, the game itself, and the aftermather were featured heavily in “The Last Dance.” Relief came over teh Bulls as they had survived an incredible test from the motivated Pacers, who took the champs to the brink.
This would be the second-to-last series win for the Bulls’ dynasty, and the teams wouldn’t meet again in the playoffs till 2011. While they might not be top of mind like the Pistons, Knicks, or Jazz, the Pacers were as much of an antagonist as any others from the first to the final dance.