Coming off their loss in the seven-game 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls entered the 1991 season with a determined focus. Michael Jordan won his second MVP award as Chicago blitzed through the regular season to a conference-best 61 wins, a franchise record. In the playoffs, the Bulls quickly swept the New York Knicks and dispatched the Philadelphia 76ers in five games, setting up a third straight conference finals match-up with their rival Pistons. Chicago dominated the series and shocked the league by sweeping the defending champions. A controversial moment occurred in game four when Isiah Thomas led the Pistons to the locker room with time left on the clock to avoid shaking hands with the Bulls. With this win, Chicago reached the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Following the retirement of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers missed the NBA Finals in 1990 for the first time in four years, and Pat Riley resigned as head coach following the season. The team hired Mike Dunleavy as the new coach in 1991, and Los Angeles finished the regular season with 58 wins, good enough for the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Lakers quickly swept the Houston Rockets and then beat the Golden State Warriors in five games in the second round. In the Western Conference Finals, Los Angeles was featured as an underdog to the Portland Trailblazers–coming off a league-best 63 wins and an NBA Finals appearance. The Lakers surprised the Trailblazers with a six-game series victory. With this series win, Los Angeles reached the NBA Finals for the ninth time since 1980.
The Chicago Bulls starting lineup featured John Paxson at point guard alongside league MVP Michael Jordan at shooting guard. Scottie Pippen was the “Robin” to Jordan’s “Batman” as the starting small forward. In the post, the Bulls featured Horace Grant at power forward alongside veteran center Bill Cartwright.
Off the bench, Chicago employed second-year guard B.J. Armstrong as Paxson’s backup and Craig Hodges as the fourth guard. Cliff Levingston and Scott Williams functioned as the backup forwards, and Will Perdue spelled Cartwright at center. Stacey King and Dennis Hopson were two players to see scarce minutes in the Finals
The Lakers’ starting backcourt was unchanged since their previous Finals appearances. Magic Johnson was a fixture as the point guard, and Byron Scott was the starting shooting guard. James Worthy continued to start at small forward, but the post was where the most change had occurred. Newcomer Sam Perkins served as the power forward alongside second-year player Vlade Divac at center.
Los Angeles’ bench ran four players deep. With Michael Cooper gone, Terry Teagle filled his role as the backup guard, and Larry Drew was the fourth guard. A.C. Green, now moved to the bench, played as the backup forward, and rookie Elden Campbell was the backup big man. Tony Smith and veteran Mychal Thompson rarely played in the Finals.
Game One: Lakers 93, Bulls 91
Appearing in his first career NBA Finals game, Michael Jordan came out on fire and tallied 15 points and 5 assists in the first quarter. The Lakers remained close, and Magic Johnson hit two huge three-pointers to close out the third quarter despite not attempting any field goals in the second. The game went back and forth in the second half, and Jordan continued his assault on the basket with 13 points in the fourth. Late in the game, Pippen made two free throws to give the Bulls a two point lead. With 14 seconds left, Sam Perkins hit a three-pointer to put the Lakers up by one. Jordan’s game-winning attempt on the other end rimmed out and forced Chicago to foul. Byron Scott hit one of two free throws, but without a timeout the Bulls couldn’t create a good shot attempt. MJ finished with 36/8/12 in the loss, and Pippen was the only other Bull in double figures with 19 points. Magic delivered his 29th career playoff triple-double, Perkins and Worthy combined for 44 points, and Divac contributed a double-double as the Lakers took a 1-0 series lead.
Game Two: Lakers 86, Bulls 107
The Bulls ran the Lakers out of the building in the second half of game two, buoyed by an outstanding pressure defense and an historically efficient offense. Michael Jordan finished with 33 points, 7 rebounds, and 13 assists, including an incredible shooting stretch where he made 13 consecutive field goals, and he concluded the stretch by converting a lay-up in midair after switching hands. Paxson was a perfect 8/8 from the field, Horace Grant scored 20 points, and Pippen delivered a 20/10 double-double. Los Angeles shot only 41% as a team, led by Worthy’s 24 points and Magic’s 14/10 double-double. The series now moved back west tied at one game apiece.
Game Three: Bulls 104, Lakers 96 (OT)
Back in Los Angeles, the Lakers looked to seize control of the series with three straight home games. Game three saw Los Angeles go on an 18-2 scoring run in the third quarter to take the lead. The Bulls responded with a 20-7 run of their own to tie the game in the fourth. The teams traded baskets, and then Vlade Divac converted a miraculous lay-up and made the foul shot to put the the Lakers up two with less than ten seconds left. Michael Jordan quickly responded with a short jumper over Divac to tie the game, and the contest would go to overtime. In the extra period, Jordan scored 6 of his team’s 12 points, and the Bulls held on to take a 2-1 series. lead. MJ had a near triple-double with 29/9/9 as well as 4 steals, and Pippen and Grant both turned in double-doubles. Four of the Lakers’ starters scored 90 of their 96 points (Scott went 0-8 from the field), as their bench failed to make a significant contribution.
Game Four: Bulls 97, Lakers 82
The Lakers led game four after the first quarter, but poor shooting and injuries to Worthy and Scott held Los Angeles back. The Bulls responded in the second and third quarters with a 19-9 run to take the lead and then build upon it in the second half. Los Angeles climbed back into the game in the fourth quarter, but Pippen and Jordan led Chicago on another 19-8 run to close out the victory. Jordan tallied 28 points, 5 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the rest of the Bulls’ starters combined for 55 points. Divac and Magic led the way for Los Angeles with 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks and 22/11 respectively. Sam Perkins was a nightmare for the Lakers offensively, making only 1 of 15 shots. The Bulls moved to within one game of their first world championship.
Game Five: Bulls 108, Lakers 101
Despite playing without Worthy and Scott, the Lakers looked determined to extend the series and led 93-90 in the fourth quarter after seldom-used rookie Elden Campbell converted an alley-oop from Magic plus the foul. The Bulls responded once again, however, with a 9-0 run to reclaim the lead. Paxson poured in 10 points on 5/5 shooting in the closing stretch, and Chicago’s victory clinched their first NBA championship in franchise history. Magic, playing in what would be his last NBA Finals game, recorded a triple-double with 16/11/20, and Campbell delivered an impressive 21 points off the bench. For the Bulls, Pippen led the way with 32 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, and 5 steals. Paxson contributed 20 points on 9/12 shooting, and Jordan–a runaway choice for the Finals MVP–netted 30 points, 10 assists, and 5 steals of his own.
Their victory in the 1991 NBA Finals was the start of an era of unprecedented prosperity for the Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan would capture his second straight MVP award the following season, leading the team to a franchise record 67 wins. The team would face a tough New York Knicks team in the playoffs, but the Bulls once again reached the NBA Finals, facing off against the Portland Trailblazers as they looked to defend their world championship.
After their loss in the Finals, the Lakers’ fortunes turned south for the decade. Magic Johnson, after being diagnosed with HIV, would retire before the start of the 1991-92 season. Without Magic, the team would plummet and miss the playoffs in 1994 after two consecutive first round eliminations. The team found success in the late ’90s behind Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and they would reach the NBA Finals again in 2000 after a nine-year drought.