Chicago Bulls forward Toni Kukoc wasn’t big on celebrations. He was a do-your-work-and-go-home type of guy. Indiana Pacers shooting guard Reggie Miller was a talker. He was big on celebrations – even premature ones. That was on display on Jan. 21, 1994 when Miller’s Pacers came to Chicago to visit Kukoc’s Bulls.
Michael Jordan was off playing baseball
During the 1993-94 NBA season, the Chicago Bulls were without Michael Jordan who was off with the Chicago White Sox farm system trying to make a go of professional baseball. Jordan played a season with the Birmingham Barons and then returned to the NBA the following season. He played for more seasons with the Bulls after his baseball attempt.
Without Jordan, the Bulls were a more balanced team. Toni Kukoc was a rookie that season and was one of four players who averaged double figures in scoring. Scottie Pippen led the way for the Bulls, averaging 22 points per game. Horace Grant averaged 15.1 points and pulled down 11 rebounds per game, while point guard B.J. Armstrong tallied 14.8 ppg. Kukoc, the rookie from Croatia, averaged 10.9 points per contest.
The Bulls, despite the absence of Jordan, still managed to win 55 games that season. The Bulls finished second in the Central Division with a 55-27 mark. They swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the opening round of the playoffs, but were ousted by the New York Knicks in seven games in the next round.
Toni Kukoc makes a name for himself in Chicago
Although Toni Kukoc was drafted in the second round of the 1990 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls, he didn’t report to the team until 1993. Kukoc, from Croatia, finished out his obligations in Europe before reporting to the NBA for the 1993-94 season.
With Michael Jordan having left the team to pursue a baseball career, Kukoc was able to see more minutes than he likely would have in his rookie season. Kukoc primarily came off the bench, starting in just eight of the 75 games he played during the 1993-94 season. The 6-foot-10 left-hander used his versatility to create problems for defenders. He was quick for his size and could shoot from long range.
Kukoc made an impact in his first season with the Bulls. He averaged 10.9 points, four rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game in a little more than 24 minutes per game. Kukoc spent the first seven of his 13 NBA seasons in Chicago. With the Bulls, he was a three-time NBA champion and was the winner of the Sixth Man Award for the 1995-96 season.
Reggie Miller’s premature celebration
The Chicago Bulls were on a hot streak in January of 1994 and were taking on Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers looking for their 16th straight home win and fifth straight victory overall. With less than one second remaining, Miller, who had 25 points, his a jumper that gave the visitors a 95-93 lead.
In typical Miller fashion, he turned to the crowd and bowed multiple times after hitting his shot with 0.8 seconds remaining. After the Bulls advanced the ball to halfcourt with a timeout, Scottie Pippen lobbed the inbounds behind the 3-point line to Kukoc whose catch-and-shoot heave banked off the glass and went in, giving the Bulls an improbable 96-95 win. For Kukoc, there was no bowing.
“I was like the fourth option,” said Kukoc after the game. “The play was not designed for me. Nothing special, really. We won the game, and that’s the most important thing. It’s not just the last shot. Scottie made a great pass. I practiced this, really. You can ask Bill Cartwright and coach (John) Bach. But I had no idea it was going in.”
For Miller, Kukoc’s shot was a silent slap in the face. “As you can see, you never really have it until the buzzer goes off,” said Miller. “But give Kukoc credit. He hit a big-time shot. I thought we had all the shooters covered, but he got a good look.”