Michael Jordan averaged 28.7 points per game and Scottie Pippen added 19.1 during the regular season en route to the Chicago Bulls’ sixth NBA title in the 1997-98 season. Jordan could score at will and Pippen could too, but his offensive numbers were hampered by the presence of Jordan. Despite the fact the Bulls had two dominant offensive players that season, center Luc Longley said the team was built on defense. He was right.
The 1997-98 Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls finished the 1997-98 season with a 62-20 record and were shooting for their third straight NBA Championship. With Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen leading the way once again, the Bulls finished first in the Central Division once again. They posted a first-round sweep of the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
The Bulls were extra hungry for a third straight title, sixth overall, because it was known this would be the last season together for the core players. Jordan was yet again the leader in nearly every offensive category, playing in all 82 games at the age of 34.
The Bulls went on to handle the Charlotte Hornets 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and then outlasted the Indiana Pacers in seven games. In the NBA Finals, the Bulls met the Utah Jazz for the second straight season. Jordan averaged 33.5 points per game as the Bulls won the series 4-2. In the series-clinching Game 6, Jordan had 45 points, including the game-winner.
Defense was the key during the Bulls’ three-year title run
While Michael Jordan was known for his scoring prowess, he was also named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Team for nine seasons. He was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1987-88. Put Jordan with Scottie Pippen, another strong defender, and Dennis Rodman, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and you’ve got quite a strong defense.
Former Bulls center Bill Wennington noted the team’s defense, specifically during the 1996 run. Rodman, a 6-foot-7, 210-pounder, went up against all 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds of Shaquille O’Neal of the Orlando Magic. “The different lineups that (coach) Phil (Jackson) could go with — small with Dennis or Toni (Kukoc) at center or big with me and Luc (Longley) and James Edwards,” Wennington told NBA Sports Chicago. “Every guy on the floor barring the 7-footers could guard pretty much anyone on the floor.”
Wennington said everything was clicking for the team during that playoff run. The offense was running smoothly and the defense was very versatile, leaving the team with many options. “Just the rotations and how everyone worked together, whether it was Michael (Jordan) or Scottie (Pippen) or Ron Harper,” Wennington said. “I hate to say it, even Toni Kukoc with his olé defense was making the right adjustments at the right time.”
Luc Longley said the Bulls were built on defense
The Chicago Bulls defense really came into play during the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz. The Bulls never allowed the Jazz to score more than 88 points in any of the six games in the series. Chicago’s defense held Utah’s offense to 80 points per game in the series, including a record-low 54 points in Game 3. Luc Longley, the Bulls center during their run, said their defense was very underrated.
“It’s probably the single best piece of evidence of how good we were defensively,” Longley told Sporting News. “People talk about that ‘Flu Game’ and they talk about Michael’s offense, but I believe we were built defensively as much as anything. We were equally as proud, or possibly even more proud, of our defense.”
Longley, a 7-foot-2 center, said it was the Bulls’ athleticism and length that caused many problems for their opponents. He called their defense ‘intimidating.’ “That was the intimidating part,” Longley said. “Trying to get into the paint or get an entry pass in with all those long arms and a well-orchestrated defense. It just wasn’t easy to do with that length.”