Michael Jordan vs. Larry Bird ’91 Christmas Showdown Was Hardly a Gift for NBA Fans

On paper, it should have been quite the Christmas present to NBA fans. Instead, it was like getting coal in the stocking. Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls faced off against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics on Dec. 25, 1991, with Bird’s aging squad traveling to Chicago to face Jordan’s red-hot Bulls. It was a highly anticipated holiday event that didn’t go quite as planned.

Michael Jordan and Larry Bird highlighted the holiday matchup

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls walks to the bench during a game in the 1991 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers in May, 1991, at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. | B Miller/Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images

The Celtics and Bulls matchup was the earlier of the two NBA Christmas Day games in 1991. The Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers faced off in the second game of the day. Much of the nation wanted to see Jordan and the Bulls, fresh off an NBA title, host Boston’s Big Three — Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish.

Boston was the veteran squad that had been to the NBA Finals five times in the 1980s, collecting three championships. Their last Finals appearance had been four years prior when they fell to the Lakers in six games. The team was an aging group. Bird was 35, Parish 38, and McHale 34. The Celtics hoped for one last hurrah together.

Meanwhile, Jordan and the Bulls were coming into their own. They just won their first NBA title after having dethroned the Detroit Pistons, who represented the Eastern Conference in the Finals the previous three seasons. Jordan was now the face of the NBA, and the league decided Celtics/Bulls was the marquee matchup that holiday.

Michael Jordan vs. Larry Bird was an absolute dud on Christmas in 1991

Even Jordan admitted his matchup with Bird and the Celtics didn’t come close to living up the hype.

“I guess it didn’t turn out to be as advertised,” he said, according to The Chicago Tribune, after the Bulls crushed the Celtics 121-99 to improve to 21-4.

Not only was the game a snoozefest, but Bird and Jordan each had one of the worst games of their careers. The duo combined for 22 points. Bird played 34 minutes, Jordan 35.

Bird made four of 10 shots in the game and never got to the foul line. He finished with eight points. He said the Celtics appeared ready before the game began. After the opening tip, however, Bird said it was a different story.

“We just got beat. We got outplayed at both ends,” Bird said, according to the UPI archives. “They turned every steal into two points. We were ready to play when we came here but we just didn’t do it well. Tonight, they beat us to every loose ball.

“In this league, you have to come every night to play. The holiday is no excuse for the way we played.”

Jordan realized his shot was off, so he tried to help in other ways

Jordan made six field goals in the game. He went 6-for-14 from the floor but said he knew early on he didn’t have his shot. He tried to find other ways to help his team.

“If you people think I’m getting old, you’re wrong,” Jordan said. “I saw my shot wasn’t there early, so I made the pass and rebounded to help the team win.”

Old is how the Celtics looked. Bird and Parish each had eight points, while McHale had 11 off the bench. It was rookie Rick Fox who led the way with 21 points. Reggie Lewis had 20.

“We were just outplayed in every aspect,” Boston Coach Chris Ford said. “We were beaten by the defending champs. They played tough vigorous defense and we just stood around and watched. That’s the whole ball of wax.”

Jordan finished with eight rebounds, five assists, and three blocks. He deferred to Scottie Pippen, who led the way with 27 points. B.J. Armstrong had 18.

“We have three games in four nights, so having everyone involved in this win will help with endurance,” Jordan said. “We’re playing well, and I’m happy.”

The Bulls proved they could win without Jordan at his best. They also showed they weren’t in a giving mood that Christmas Day.

All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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