May 11, 1996
This one had just about everything.
Bulls vs. Knicks, Jordan vs. Starks, Jordan's end game heroics, all kinds of hard physical play, referee Hollins knocking down Jeff Van Gundy and, of course, Charles Oakley.
After their historic 72-10 season, Bulls swept Riley's Miami and they were looking absolutely invincible. They beat the Knicks in the first two games of the next round but the victories didn't come easy. The third game became a do-or-die situation for the Knicks.
And they played as well as they could throughout the whole game. They were up by 8 points 1:21 to go and even the most optimistic Bulls fans were losing hope. Then it happened again. Jordan took over, scored 8 and sent the game to OT. He carried the team to a 3 point lead but even that wasn't enough in the end.
Both Ewing and Starks had terrific games but despite having a bunch of turnovers, I'd say Oakley was at least as important as them. He was just on another level, and I'm not talking about his 13 points and 13 rebounds. He intimidated and frustrated everybody. Just look at the footage and I'll think you'd agree. He would have been ejected in the first quarter under today's rules.
Jordan scored 46 on 17/35 (49%) shooting but he didn't get any help on the offensive end. Kukoc didn't play because of injury. Even though he was 3/15 in the first two games, he was still an offensive threat. Pippen, intimidated by Oakley, shot 10/29, Harper was 1/8. Bulls starters other than Jordan shot a combined total of 16/48 (33%).
By the way, Oakley really got into Pippen's head that year. Pippen was 29/88 (33%) in this series and his best game was the last one in which he shot just 5/12 (42%). That's how effective Oakley was in his job.
Before getting a little bit bored and losing 2 games, Bulls were up by 3-0 against the Sonics in the finals and they were 14-1. Up until that time, this was the only game they lost in the playoffs.
Post game quotes and notes:
NEW YORK -- After the Bulls' 102-99 overtime loss to the Knicks in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference playoff series, Jordan said he was "dead tired." You can't get more zonked than that unless you're in a casket being lowered into the ground.
But the real weariness for Jordan is playing the mind battles that come when his teammates fall by the wayside, as they fell on Saturday.
"We're totally out of sync," Jordan summed up postgame. "I've found myself bailing the team out in certain situations, because we're not in sync. And that's more rustrating than anything, that we haven't played the kind of basketball we're capable of playing."
The Knicks, with their tenacious, muscular defense, can do that to a frailer, athletic team like the Bulls. At least they do it to everybody but Jordan.
In the first half, the Bulls scored just 38 points to New York's 43. Much-needed scorers Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper were a combined 3-for-17 from the floor, largely as a result of being hurried and banged and pressured away from their comfort zones by the Knicks bruisers upfront - Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing.
Moreover, the Bulls' center trifecta of Luc Longley, Bill Wennington and John Salley had first-half grand totals of three rebounds, two points, one turnover, zero assists, zero steals, zero blocks and six fouls.
Jordan, by contrast, had 22 points on 7-for-14 shooting from the floor and eight free throws. He had come to the bench for just one minute in the first half, and admitted he didn't want to come out then. The only fatigue he was feeling was caused by the mental support he had to give to teammates who seemed incapable of hitting barn doors with bulldozers.
When the Bulls finally made their run at the end of regulation - coming from 13 down with five minutes to play to snare a last-second tie at 88 - it was Jordan who scored the final 10 points. It was his remarkable three-point basket with 19 seconds left that forced overtime. It was Jordan who scored 16 of the Bulls' final 25 points, en route to a game-high 46 points. 24 of his 46 points came in the final 17 minutes. If he had not done this before, it would seem implausible.
And it was Jordan who had to consider how much more he could do with his teammates off their feed and Toni Kukoc off the traveling squad.
"Somehow we have to find our rhythm, so we have much more balanced productivity on offense," Jordan said. He added that he was "concerned" by Pippen's tentative and unproductive shot-taking. And then there was the sight of Steve Kerr blowing two layups off steals late in the third quarter.
"We had to laugh, we had to hug him, we had to support him," said Jordan, sounding like Mr. Rogers.
Before leaving for New York, Jordan talked about the way he begins to focus on a game long before the tipoff. He reads the moods and cycles and confidence levels of his teammates during practices and travel, so he can adjust his own game to benefit the team.
Taking a whole bunch of shots - he took 35 Saturday - is not what he wants to do, nor does he want to score almost 50 percent of the points. Not unless he has to.
And, if he has to, it means the Bulls, as a team, are in trouble.
"In this offense I could average 40 points a game, if I wanted to," Jordan said. "But that wouldn't be good for the team."
The specter of MJ carrying everyone on his cape during the playoffs is not a pleasant one. He is 33 and cannot possibly fly without a break the way he did when he was a 25-year-old ball of flame.
"I'm dead tired right now," said Jordan. "It's a good thing that we play at 5:30 (New York time). I'm just going to go and try to get rejuvenated, eat food or whatever.
"But I'll be ready at 5:30."
Indeed. He played 51 minutes and, as he spoke, had less than 24 hours to rest for Game 4.
He added that the Knicks played like a desperate team.
"They were fighting with their backs to the wall," he said. "They're scratching and fighting and doing everything they can to stay alive."
"This is a team we were not intimidated by," Knicks forward Anthony Mason said. "We knew we could beat them."
The game, as intense and grueling as any played in this rivalry during the Ewing-Jordan era, even featured a bit of the bizzarre when Referee Hue Hollins inadvertently knocked Van Gundy to the floor as he made a 3-second call against the Bulls with 9:31 left. Like his team, he rose to his feet.
Heading into overtime, Ewing said he told his teammates he wanted the ball. Ewing, who had 22 points and 13 rebounds, opened the extra quarter with a block of Luc Longley, which Starks converted into a 16-foot jumper. Starks and Ewing accounted for 18 straight points in the fourth quarter and overtime period. They were the only Knicks to score in overtime.
Pippen was wildly erratic after contributing a mediocre 30 points combined in the first two games of the series. He shot just 10 for 29 from the field and barely grazed the rim on an open three- pointer at the buzzer that would have created a second overtime.
"They won 72 games," said Knicks guard John Starks, when asked if he thought his team had figured out the Bulls. "The best ever. They're not gonna lay down."