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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with the NBA’s future still so uncertain, we look again to the past, polishing up our Dunk History series — with a twist. If you are in need of a momentary distraction from the state of an increasingly isolated world, remember with us some of the most electrifying baskets and improbable buckets in the game’s history, from buzzer-beaters to circus shots. This is Sunk History.
Today, we revisit Michael Jordan’s “spectacular” up-and-under in the 1991 NBA Finals.
[Dunk History, collected: Our series on the most scintillating slams of yesteryear]
By the time the 1991 NBA Finals rolled around, Michael Jordan was already a megastar.
When they were complete, he had secured his first NBA championship. In the process he hit one of the defining shots of his legendary career.
Championship void loomed large
Jordan was a seven-time All-Star when he reached his first Finals. He’d led the league in scoring for five straight seasons. The Jordan Brand had long transformed the sneaker game with recently released Jordan VIs the latest must-have shoe for every kid on the playground whose parents could afford them.
But there was one legacy-securing item missing from Jordan’s resume. Amid the accolades, fame and fortune, Jordan was the superstar without a ring. He couldn’t break through to join the Magics, Birds and Bad Boys as the best of his era.
But in 1991, Jordan’s Bulls rolled the Pistons in a four-game Eastern Conference finals sweep to earn their first berth in the NBA Finals. There, they would take on basketball icon Magic Johnson and the remnants of the storied Showtime Los Angeles Lakers.
Jordan’s NBA Finals breakout
When the Lakers won Game 1 in Chicago, Jordan’s reputation as a sensational scorer who couldn’t win the big one surfaced.
But Jordan quickly put that storyline to rest in Game 2 with his breakout NBA Finals performance. The Bulls opened up a 48-43 halftime lead that they extended to 86-69 with a 38-point third quarter. Jordan was on fire, running up a streak of 12 straight made field goals that extended into the fourth quarter.
Then it happened. With the Bulls in full control, Jordan landed the ultimate exclamation mark, an athletic, poetic layup that stands apart from other iconic shots from his career — like his game winners against Georgetown, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Utah Jazz.
The Bulls didn’t need this one. But everybody pulling for Chicago that day wanted it.
‘A spectacular move!’
Jordan conducted the Bulls transition offense as Chicago led late in the fourth quarter, 95-71. When he approached the top of the three-point line, he dished the ball to forward Cliff Levingston on the left wing. The Lakers defense collapsed around Levingston when he drove to the paint, and he passed the ball back to Jordan at the top of the key.
Thanks in part to the efficiency of Tex Winter’s triangle offense, Jordan was alone when he received Levingston’s pass. He took one dribble into the paint and elevated in his trademark fashion.
He hung in the air through traffic, appearing on the verge of unleashing a thunderous dunk. But when he approached the rim and Lakers defender Sam Perkins, he changed his mind. He switched the ball from his right hand to his left and scooped it to the opposite side of the basket for a layup.
“Oh! A spectacular move by Michael Jordan!” NBC announcer Marv Albert proclaimed in one his storied career’s iconic calls.
Bulls head coach Phil Jackson shook his head in awe as Chicago Stadium went into a frenzy.
This was it. Jordan and the Bulls had officially arrived on basketball’s biggest stage.
Huge game from MJ
Jordan finished the game with 33 points, 13 assists, seven rebounds and two steals. He hit 15-of-18 field goal attempts, including 13 in a row, in what still stands as one of his greatest Finals performances. The Bulls won, 107-86. Jordan talked about the play with reporters after the game.
“Cliff threw it back to me and I saw a clear lane to the basket, so I was going to dunk the ball,” Jordan said. “I exposed the ball. But then I saw long-arms Sam Perkins there, and it was just instinct to change it. And I changed it to my left hand and was able to get it off.”
Johnson, who was watching his torch being passed in real time, was in awe.
"When he came down the lane, he just went one way, put it in one hand, floated about five more yards, said, ‘Well I don't know,’ and then he went off the glass,” Johnson told reporters. “It was his game tonight.”
ESPN personality and noted Chicago sports-stan Michael Wilbon recently recalled watching the moment from press row during his days as a Washington Post reporter.
It prompted him to bite his colleague David Aldridge on the arm. Why? Because there’s no cheering on press row, and that was Wilbon’s recourse.
A shot like no other
It wasn’t the first big shot of Jordan’s career. It wasn’t his last. It wasn’t his most important. It didn’t even have an impact on the outcome of a game.
But it is a seminal Michael Jordan moment — a shot that people remember where they were when they saw it. It personified the grace, athleticism and overwhelming basketball talent that Jordan brought to the floor every night.
Jordan’s Game 2 performance marked his coming out party as an NBA champion. The Bulls tied the NBA Finals at 1-1 that day. They would not lose again to the Lakers as they swept three games in Los Angeles to secure Jordan’s first NBA championship.
And from that moment, there was no looking back. Jordan wouldn’t play another full season in Chicago that didn’t conclude with another ring.
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