1992: Bulls versus Trailblazers (Chicago Repeats as Champions)

Background

After winning the franchise’s first championship in the 1991 NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls stormed through the 1991-92 regular season and won a team record 67 games. Michael Jordan won his second straight MVP–his third time winning the award overall. With the number one seed and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, the Bulls quickly swept the Miami Heat in the first round. In the second round, Chicago faced the New York Knicks, a team that few expected to give the Bulls trouble. After losing game one at home, Chicago recuperated and won the next two games. The teams then traded victories for the rest of the series before the Bulls won game seven at home to move on to the Eastern Conference Finals. Matched up against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago won the series in six games and moved on to their second straight NBA Finals.

In 1991, the Portland Trailblazers had posted a league-best 63 wins, but a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs extinguished their hopes for a championship birth. The following season Portland won 57 games, still good enough for the number one seed. The Trailblazers easily beat the Lakers in four games in the first round and the Phoenix Suns in five games in the conference semifinals. In the Western Conference Finals, Portland eliminated the Utah Jazz in six games to move on to their second NBA Finals in three years. The series was hyped up to feature the media-manufactured rivalry between Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler. Facing off in the NBA Finals for the first time, the league was hoping that this would launch the next great NBA rivalry, following in the footsteps of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1980s.

Lineups

The Bulls’ starting lineup was unchanged from the previous season. Sharpshooter John Paxson played the role of point guard next to league MVP Michael Jordan at shooting guard. Two-time all-star Scottie Pippen started at small forward in the frontcourt alongside power forward Horace Grant and veteran center Bill Cartwright.

Youngster B.J. Armstrong was still the main backup guard, and three-point specialist Craig Hodges was the fourth guard. Cliff Levingston spelled Pippen and Grant as the first forward off the bench, and Scott Williams was the fourth frontcourt player. Stacey King saw increased playing time as backup center next to Will Perdue. Newcomer Bob Hansen played sparingly in the regular season and NBA Finals.

Portland’s starters were the same from the 1990 NBA Finals. Terry Porter was the lead guard alongside Clyde Drexler at shooting guard. Jerome Kersey was still the starting small forward in the frontcourt. Veteran power forward Buck Williams started in the post with Kevin Duckworth at center.

The Trailblazers’ bench was considerably shorter than in previous years. Former Celtic Danny Ainge played the role of backup guard, and Ennis Whatley served as the fourth guard. Clifford Robinson was the primary backup in the frontcourt at forward, and Alaa Abdelnaby, Robert Pack, Mark Bryant, and Wayne Cooper rarely played in the Finals.

Game One: Trailblazers 89, Bulls 122

Entering game one, the discussion focused on Drexler and Jordan and a potential rivalry. Critics believed Clyde had an advantage over Michael from three-point range. Portland started out hot and made their first seven straight shots, and Jordan missed his first two threes. The tempo of the game drastically changed in the second quarter as Chicago’s pressure defense started to create turnovers. Meanwhile, MJ went on a tear, scoring 35 points in the first half (an NBA Finals record) including six three-pointers (also a Finals record). After the sixth, Jordan turned towards the scoring table and famously shrug, as if saying he couldn’t believe his performance either. The Bulls went on to blow out the Trailblazers, winning by 33 points. Jordan finished with 39 points and 11 assists, Pippen contributed 24 points, 9 rebounds, and 10 assists, and Armstrong and Williams combined for 23 off the bench. Drexler shot a paltry 5/14 for 16 points to lead Portland, alongside 16 points from Robinson and 13 from Porter. The Trailblazers commited 21 turnovers in game one.

Game Two: Trailblazers 115, Bulls 1o4 (OT)

Despite trailing by 9 at halftime, the Bulls went on a run in the third quarter led by Michael Jordan’s 14 points and Paxson’s 9 to take a seven point lead into the final period. It appeared as though Chicago would take a 2-0 series lead when Clyde Drexler fouled out with almost four minutes remaining. The Trailblazers capitalized on a lack of composure on Jordan’s part, and they rallied to tie the game on a jumper by Duckworth. Michael missed a game-winning opportunity, and game two went to overtime where Portland stole a game on the road. Drexler finished with 26/7/8 before fouling out, Porter scored 24 points for Portland, Buck Williams delivered a double-double, and Danny Ainge scored 17 points off the bench. Jordan scored 39 points but turned the ball over five times, Pippen and Grant both turned in double-doubles, and the Trailblazers tied the series at one game apiece.

Game Three: Bulls 94, Trailblazers 84

Having lost homecourt advantage, the Bulls badly needed to win at least one game in Portland to ensure a return trip to Chicago. In game three, their defensive intensity frustrated the Trailblazers, holding them to only 39 points in the second half. The Bulls led from start to finish, and Portland could only climb to as close as three points in the third quarter. Michael Jordan led the way with a “tame” 26 points and 7 rebounds, and Pippen and Grant scored 18 points apiece. Drexler scored a game-high 32 points, but no other Trailblazer scored more than 12. Chicago now led the series 2 games to 1.

Game Four: Bulls 88, Trailblazers 93

The Trailblazers badly needed to regroup in game four to avoid a 3-1 series deficit, but their start to the first quarter saw them go scoreless for four minutes. Despite a 13 point deficit, Portland climbed back into the game. Michael Jordan scored 13 in the third quarter, but the Trailblazers held him scoreless over the final 10 minutes while going on a 15-6 run of their own. Porter, Drexler, and Kersey combined for 56 points, and Robinson delivered 17 points off the bench. Jordan finished with 32 points and Pippen chipped in 17, but no other Bull finished in double-figures. The series was now tied at two games apiece with one more contest remaining in Portland.

Game Five: Bulls 119, Trailblazers 106

The Bulls had an answer for every run by Portland in game five, leading by 13 at the end of the first quarter and 16 at the end of the third quarter. Michael Jordan was phenomenal, scoring 46 points on 14 of 23 shooting despite twisting his ankle and briefly sitting out in the second quarter. Drexler led the Trailblazers with 30 points, but it came on 43% shooting and the All-Star fouled out for the second time in the series. Pippen had a near triple-double with 24/11/9, and Paxson was the only other Bull in double-figures with 12 points. Porter, Kersey, and Duckworth combined for 44 points, and Ainge and Robinson combined for 25 off the bench, but Portland lost for the second time at home. The series now returned to Chicago where the Bulls looked to close out the Trailblazers.

Game Six: Trailblazers 93, Bulls 97

Back in Chicago, the Trailblazers were fighting to stay alive and force a decisive game seven. Playing with a relentless determination, they held Michael Jordan scoreless in the first 11 minutes and led by six at the half. In the third quarter, Portland turned on the pressure and pushed the lead to 15 entering the final period. With Jordan on the bench, Coach Phil Jackson relied on four reserves and Pippen to lead the Bulls’ comeback, and Chicago climbed to within three points with nine minutes remaining. Michael reentered the game to make clutch shot after clutch shot to retake and defend the lead. With less than a minute to go and the Bulls up by two, Jordan converted a difficult lay-up to make it a two possession game and practically clinch the victory. MJ finished with 33 points and Pippen scored 26 to go along with Paxson’s 13. Porter, Drexler, and Kersey combined for 70 points, but Clyde only made 8 of 24 shots. This series deciding game was the first since 1938 to be won by a Chicago team at home.

Aftermath

With averages of 35.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 6.5 assists Michael Jordan won his second consecutive Finals MVP award. The 1991-92 Bulls were the third team in succession to win back-to-back titles, following the Lakers (1987-88) and Pistons (1989-90). In 1993, Chicago looked to capture the seemingly impossible three-peat–a feat unseen since the 1960s. Though they won ten fewer games, the Bulls once again reached the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns after defeating the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The 1991-92 season was the last time the Portland Trailblazers reached the NBA Finals. The roster would see much turnover over the course of the decade, starting with Duckworth’s departure after the 1993 season and Drexler’s trade to the Houston Rockets in 1995. Portland would see playoff success in 1999 and 2000, reaching the Western Conference Finals in both seasons. They lost both of these match-ups, however, and wouldn’t win a playoff series again until 2014 with Damian Lillard’s series winning shot.

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