Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls faced Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. The series didn’t start off well for the Bulls, who lost Game 1 at home by a final score of 93-91 and only had two players (Jordan, Scottie Pippen) score in double figures.
Bulls fans were nervous after losing Game 1 since the Lakers had so much championship experience. However, Jordan was confident since he knew his supporting cast would play better moving forward after getting the nerves out of their system in Game 1.
One player Jordan understood had to have a good series for the Bulls to win was sharpshooter John Paxson and the Hall of Famer delivered a powerful message to him after a subpar Game 1.
John Paxson struggled in Game 1
Jordan was the only player on the Bulls who shot the ball well in Game 1. He shot 14-of-24 from the field and finished with 36 points, eight rebounds, and 12 assists in 40 minutes of action. Even though Pippen poured in 19 points, he was only 7-of-19 from the floor.
Paxson was the Bulls’ best 3-pointer shooter, but he struggled shooting the ball in Game 1, going 3-of-7 from the field and 0-of-1 from beyond the arc. His body language didn’t look positive during Game 1 since he was missing shots he usually made.
That’s why Jordan made it a point to lift Paxson’s spirits after Game 1 by delivering a profound message, and the guard responded with flying colors.
Michael Jordan told John Paxson to keep shooting
After the Bulls lost Game 1 to the Lakers, Jordan went to Paxson in the locker room and said, “If we’re gonna go down, we’re gonna go down with no bullets in our holsters.” His Airness wanted Paxson not to lose confidence in his shot and keep shooting.
Jordan’s words resonated with Paxson, who had a terrific Game 2. He scored 16 points in 25 minutes and shot a perfect 8-of-8 from the field in the Bulls’ 107-86 win. Not many players can say they shot 100% in a Finals game, so Paxson was undoubtedly proud of the way he rebounded after a rough Game 1.
The Bulls never looked back after winning Game 2. They won Games 3-5 to capture their first title in franchise history. Jordan won Finals MVP, but Paxson hit several clutch shots in Game 5 to clinch the title. He finished with 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the floor, using Jordan’s words after Game 1 as his mantra for the series.
Jordan averaged 31.2 points and 11.4 assists against the Lakers. Meanwhile, Paxson put up 13.4 points per game and shot a team-high 65.3% from the field. He took Jordan’s message to heart and let his shot fly with no hesitation, a trend the Bulls experienced again in the ’93 Finals.
Michael Jordan and Bulls won third straight title on Pax’s game-winning 3-pointer
Jordan may have averaged 41.0 points against the Phoenix Suns in the 1993 NBA Finals, but it was Paxson who hit the biggest shot of the series. The Dayton, Ohio native made the game-winning 3-pointer in Game 6 to give the Bulls a 99-98 win.
It’s fascinating to think about how different things could have gone if Jordan didn’t uplift Paxson in ’91 and urge him to keep shooting the ball against the Lakers. That’s what great leaders do. No matter the situation, Jordan always believed in his teammates to hit shots, which is why he passed the ball to Steve Kerr in Game 6 of the 1997 Finals against the Utah Jazz for the game-winning shot.
Jordan and Paxson won three straight titles together in ’91, ’92, and ’93. The latter will likely always cherish the positive reinforcement he received from the former during his playing career.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.