My word, the Magic are toast. The Bulls went up 3-0 in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals with a smothering 86-67 win in Orlando. Observations:
Some wonky free throw shooting
Considering the Bulls’ status as perhaps the greatest team of all time, and the Orlando Magic’s reputation as supremely talented and formidable in their own right, the putrid free throw shooting in this one was a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around.
The Bulls finished the night 18-for-31 from the charity stripe, the Magic 10-for-24 (though most of that can be chalked up to Shaquille O’Neal’s 1-for-9 outing). And on technical free throws, the two teams combined to go 0-for-5.
At one point, Michael Jordan was captured on the Bulls’ bench attributing a missed technical to sweat in his eyes (come on, now). NBC color commentator Matt Goukas offered the arduous brand of defense played by both sides to their dead legs at the line.
Whatever the case, it was weird. Even Jordan wasn’t immune; he started the night 2-for-6 on free throws and finished 6-for-11.
The Bulls did an outrageous job on O’Neal tonight. In the first half, he logged just eight points on miserable 4-for-11 shooting. His line for the night: 17 points, 8-for-19 from the field and five turnovers.
The beauty is there isn’t one person to credit for the Bulls’ impressive handling of O’Neal — perhaps the single most physically imposing player in the league at the time. The rotating cast of bigs (Luc Longley and Dennis Rodman, specifically) were more than serviceable making him work in single coverage. And from a scheming perspective, the double-teams the Bulls did utilize were perfectly timed and deployed. They didn’t come every possession, and when they did, they didn’t always come from the same person, from the same direction or at the same time.
That was the beauty of this team: Virtually any player in the regular rotation — from Jordan to Pippen to Harper to Kukoc — could be trusted to time their attack deftly and bother O’Neal’s dribbling with active hands and physicality. The result was O’Neal frequently fumbling the rock while executing routine back-downs, bricking bunnies and generally appearing uncomfortable — at times, even frustrated.
When it was winning time, O’Neal and Penny Hardaway (who, it should be noted, has had some crazy smooth moments in this series) combined for five points. Greatest defense of all time.
When the Bulls flip the switch…
In that vein… Man. When this Bulls team wants to break you, they break you.
The Magic hung around for a while in this one, and give them credit for that. In the third, they shaved a double-digit deficit to just three points, and appeared to be on pace to give the Bulls a real test in the first game of this series on Orlando’s home court. All amid pedestrian performances from their two stars — even through three, O’Neal and Hardaway had just 15 points each.
Then, that fourth quarter happened. I mentioned O’Neal and Hardaway’s foibles in that period. As a team, the Magic mustered just 10 points in the final frame, 29 in the second half and 67 for the game. And even listing that 10-point fourth quarter belies the fact that five of those points came in the final two-and-a-half minutes of regulation, and they began the period shooting 1-for-13.
This Magic team had two of the most electrifying players in the league at the time and was fresh off a Finals berth. Yes, they were banged up (Horace Grant’s series ended in Game 1 and Nick Anderson limped off the floor in the fourth), but when the Bulls lock in, they just looked so helpless. Most teams did, I’m beginning to see.
This stat says it all:
The Magic entered the fourth trailing 63-57. They ended losers by a score of 86-67. 90s basketball, baby.
Some signature nights
Scottie Pippen’s night warrants extended mention and celebration. In the box score, he shot 11-for-14 (after starting 9-for-10) to lead the game in scoring with 27 points. He also — typically — added seven assists, six rebounds and two blocks for good measure.
One of those blocks came on a preposterous chasedown midway through the second quarter. Even more preposterous was Pippen, seemingly in one fluid motion, stripping the ball out of a Magic player’s arms as he descended from making the block in the first place. His jumper was on, his ballhandling and fastbreak work as fluid as ever. He’s awesome.
And in addition to Rodman grinding down O’Neal, he had a signature night all-around, as well. He finished with nine points, 16 rebounds (moving his averages for the series to 12.3 points and 16.3 rebounds) and four fouls — one of them a technical in the first quarter and one a tone-setting personal on Shaq in the fourth.
These guys are beaten. The Bulls seal the sweep Monday at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago. Jordan left this one early and banged up, but we have a feeling he’ll bounce back nicely.
Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls' 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.
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