Gary Payton Had Michael Jordan on Lock in the 1996 NBA Finals, but Only After ‘Mr. Sonic’ Returned

Despite Michael Jordan’s assertion in The Last Dance that he had “no problem” with Gary Payton during the 1996 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Seattle SuperSonics, the numbers show otherwise.

Payton held MJ to his worst shooting percentage (41.5%) during a single Finals series. The Glove had good size (6-foot-4) for a point guard, with quick hands and elite instincts. Those attributes helped him defend one of the game’s greatest scorers, though Payton haughtily suggested he guarded more demanding players than Jordan.

However, even the prideful Payton admitted in 1996 that the return of a veteran teammate played a critical role in his ability to tire Jordan out and keep his numbers down.

Michael Jordan dominated Gary Payton and the SuperSonics without Nate McMillan on the floor

Michael Jordan and the Bulls dog walked Gary Payton and the SuperSonics through the first three games of the 1996 NBA Finals.

Jordan scored 28 points on 9-of-18 shooting in Game 1 before stuffing the stat sheet with 29 points, eight assists, and six rebounds in Game 2. That line might have looked even better had MJ not missed six free throws. It got worse for GP and the Sonics in Game 3, as Jordan poured in 36 points and helped the Bulls grab a stranglehold on the series.

Mike appeared too dominant for Seattle. However, the Sonics missed a crucial piece to the backcourt.

Veteran guard Nate McMillan played five minutes in Game 1 before a sciatic nerve issue that had plagued him for weeks reared its ugly head once again. At this point, McMillan played a reserve role. But he meant quite a bit to the Sonics as a two-time All-Defensive member and former steals champion, as well as someone who could play more of a traditional point guard and allow Payton to excel as a combo guard.

Seattle appeared powerless without McMillan on the floor. That changed in Game 4, as the man whose tenure and dedication earned him the nickname “Mr. Sonic” returned, allowing Payton more freedom on both ends of the floor and giving the Sonics a glimpse of hope in the series.

Payton credited McMillan’s return with helping him wear Jordan out

Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton defends Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls (L) looks to make a basket as Seattle SuperSonics guard Gary Payton (R) defends during a game in March 1996 | Vincent Laforet/AFP via Getty Images

Nate McMillan had little to zero flexibility before Game 4 of the 1996 NBA Finals, but he wanted to give it a go. Mr. Sonic’s return had an enormous impact on Gary Payton.

Payton showed more activity. He scored 21 points, adding 11 assists and two steals. McMillan scored eight points and had three assists in just over 14 minutes, occasionally spelling GP and giving The Glove the chance to run Jordan off screens and force him to exert energy on defense. It paid dividends. Michael Jordan shot just 6-of-19 from the field as Seattle staved off elimination with a 107-86 win over the Bulls.

When asked after the game about why this game looked so different for the Sonics, Payton offered a simple explanation.

“Nate, Nate McMillan,” Payton said, via the New York Times.

The Bulls also acknowledged McMillan’s impact on the contest. Scottie Pippen noticed how Mr. Sonic’s presence seemed to elevate Payton.

“[McMillan] gave them a big lift,” Pippen said, via the Baltimore Sun. “Gary was a lot more active on offense, and Nate allowed him to get some rest.”

The Glove felt rejuvenated. Jordan rediscovered his scoring touch in Game 5, but Payton and the Sonics mostly kept him out of the paint and often forced him to defer to teammates. For his part, McMillan played 21 more quality minutes.

Even in Game 6, when the Bulls closed the series at home, Jordan had one of the worst shooting nights of his career. It speaks volumes about Payton’s ability to make MJ work on both ends, which McMillan made possible simply by being on the floor.

Mr. Overlooked

Attaining a nickname like “Mr. Sonic” might sound conducive to fame. But that isn’t the case with McMillan.

Payton became a star in Seattle almost as soon as he laced up the sneakers and started trash-talking with legends like Isiah Thomas. By that time, though, McMillan had already been one of the better defensive guards in the NBA and a strong playmaker to boot.

McMillan averaged 8.6 assists, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.1 steals in just his second season. He never had much as a scorer, averaging only 7.6 points. Still, the trend of sound distribution, rebounding, and defense remained. The current Atlanta Hawks head coach averaged 6.2 points, 6.6 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.0 steals in his first nine seasons before injuries disrupted his career.

Payton and Sean Kemp headlined the best era of Sonics basketball. However, the underrated McMillan deserves more credit for his contributions to the franchise and his impact on The Glove. Even a hobbled McMillan gave GP the incentive to push Michael Jordan and the Bulls to the limit.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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