Throughout the 1990s, Michael Jordan provided some of the greatest moments in NBA Finals history. Naturally, that makes a ton of sense seeing as he had 35 chances to do so as he and the Chicago Bulls won six championships.
So what was his best NBA Finals performance? Some think that his 55-point outburst against Charles Barkley the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 in 1993 is the answer and there is certainly an argument to back that up. He was money that entire series, averaging an incredible 41 points per game. Or was it his Game 2 performance against the Los Angeles Lakers in 1991, the game that included that spectacular (albeit unnecessary) circus shot where he switched from right to left? He scored 33 points and dished out 13 assists that night, evening the series.
Some would argue that his final NBA Finals performance, the Game 6 win in 1998 against the Utah Jazz, was his best. With Scottie Pippen injured, Jordan took over and scored 45 points, including that iconic game-winning shot, to lead the Bulls to an 87-86 victory. Then, of course, there’s the famous “Flu Game” in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, also against the Jazz. Jordan, under the weather (why he was sick has long been a mystery), scored 38 points, including a late three, in Chicago’s 90-88 win and Pippen helping him off the court will forever be a classic image.
However, I’ve always gone in a different direction. To me, Michael Jordan put up his best performance in the NBA Finals in 1992 in Game 1 against the Portland Trailblazers, the game that included the famous shrug. He stepped out of his comfort zone and wowed Chicago Stadium and millions watching around the world that night.
Michael Jordan was never a great three-point shooter
Throughout his career, Michael Jordan was never a great three-point shooter. He just wasn’t but he never really needed to be. A slasher in his early days in the league, he developed a mid-range jumper that became nearly unstoppable.
In his first five years in the league, Jordan never attempted more than 98 threes in a season and his highest three-point shooting percentage during those years was 27.6% in 1988-1989, the only time in his early days that he’d even gotten to 20%. He attempted a then-career-high 245 long balls in 1989-1990, making 92 of them for a 37.6% clip, which isn’t bad but certainly not great. But he knew that wasn’t his bread and butter and the totals went back down over the next few years.
During the 1991-1992 season, Michael Jordan made just 27 of 100 three-pointers. Little did the Portland Trailblazers know when the 1992 NBA Finals began that MJ was ready to leave his comfort zone.
Jordan wanted to make a point with Clyde Drexler
On June 3, 1992, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were set to take on Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trailblazers in front of 18,676 excited fans at Chicago Stadium.
This was a long-awaited matchup between Jordan and Drexler, who were essentially looked at as the top two shooting guards in the NBA at the time. Some even went as far as to say that Drexler was actually Jordan’s equal but just didn’t have the players around him that MJ did. Naturally, Jordan took that personally and wanted to prove a point, not just to those who had said things but to Drexler himself. Years later, author David Halberstram wrote a book, “Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made”, and described Jordan’s philosophy heading into the 1992 NBA Finals.
“But of course, it was intensely personal for him, the perfect challenge for a man who always wanted and always need challenges, and he used all the comparisons with Drexler, all those nonbelievers who thought Drexler as good as he was, to motivate himself. He set out to do nothing less than destroy, not just Portland, but Drexler as well.”Author David Halberstram on Michael Jordan
And that’s exactly what happened in Game 1.
Michael Jordan came out firing
Clyde Drexler was content to give Michael Jordan outside shots as the game began, a decision that would soon haunt him and the Blazers as a whole. Jordan certainly hadn’t forgotten that Portland had passed on him in the 1984 NBA draft and he was ready to make them remember.
Jordan missed a few shots early on but would heat up as the first half rolled along, hitting seven of his first 12 shots, including three triples. The Blazers managed to keep things close and were only down three at the end of the first quarter, 33-30. Jordan sat out close to half of the second quarter but when he returned, he picked up right where he left off. It’s still a mystery as to why Portland kept allowing him to shoot from the outside but that’s what happened. At one point, there was nobody within 12 feet of him and Jordan was simply baffled. When the defense did collapse on him at the three-point line, he threw up a ball fake and just came in a few feet to hit shots.
Michael Jordan just kept hitting shot after shot after shot. Twos, threes, dunks…it didn’t matter. The roof was about to come off Chicago Stadium when he hit his fifth three-pointer, which gave him 30 points in the half, and it didn’t seem that things could get any louder. It did.
Scottie Pippen got a steal and raced down the court for a layup, which he missed, and Jordan was right there to slam it home, once again sending the live crowd into a frenzy. Drexler came back down on the other end and threw up an airball, which landed in the hands of Horace Grant. He swung it out to John Paxson, who dribbled up the right side of the court and found Jordan, who’d been trailing the play, on the left arc.
Jordan put up another three over the outstretched arms of Cliff Robinson and it dropped as the crowd went absolutely insane. Even Michael Jordan himself couldn’t believe what was happening. He turned and shrugged and it instantly became one of the best moments in history. He had an NBA Finals record 35 points in the half and the Bulls cruised to a blowout victory, 122-89, and won the series in six games. Jordan didn’t play a ton late in the game and scored just four points in the second half.
While not his highest-scoring game in the NBA Finals, there just hasn’t been a better performance. Had he actually made any real effort in the second half, he could have broken Elgin Baylor’s record of 61 points in a Finals game. But he didn’t need to. He did what he set out to do that night. Never in all my years of watching the NBA have I seen something like that, not even when Kobe went for 81. It was the atmosphere involved and MJ stepping out of his comfort zone to do what he did that night. He was hot and he knew it and made a great player and a great team look foolish. By the way, Drexler, who averaged 25 points per game that season, scored just 16 that night and only two with Jordan guarding him.
In other words, it was just classic Michael Jordan.