After their historic 1995-96 championship campaign, the Bulls could have easily coasted to a mediocre finish, but there was no way Michael Jordan would have allowed that to happen. Despite being passed over for the MVP award, due to what could be considered voter fatigue, Jordan won his ninth scoring title, and in 1997 Chicago once again ran away with the number one seed thanks to 69 regular season wins (three shy of their previous season). Looking to reach the NBA Finals yet again, the Bulls easily swept the Washington Bullets in the first round, defeated the Atlanta Hawks in a five-game semifinal match-up, and finally dispatched the upstart Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals in another five game series. Chicago reached the NBA Finals for the fifth time in the decade, aiming to maintain their perfect record in the championship series.
The Utah Jazz had long since arrived as one of the forerunners of the Western Conference. In 1988 they reached the conference semifinals and lost a hard-fought seven-game series to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers. In the coming seasons, they would lose in the Western Conference Finals three times (1992, 1994, 1996), but entering the 1997 season it appeared that their time had come. Utah won 64 games in the regular season, good enough to earn Karl “The Mailman” Malone his first MVP, and it gave the Jazz the number one seed out West. In the playoffs, Utah first swept the Los Angeles Clippers in the opening round, then eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers in a five-game semifinal, and finally defeated the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals thanks to a John Stockton series-winning three in the sixth game to reach the franchise’s first NBA Finals.
Chicago’s starting lineup was identical to the previous season. Ron Harper started at point guard alongside four-time MVP Michael Jordan at shooting guard. Perennial All-Star Scottie Pippen was the starting small forward alongside six-time rebounding champion Dennis “The Worm” Rodman at power forward and seven-foot Australian Luc Longley at center.
Off the bench, the Bulls utilized sharpshooter Steve Kerr as the third guard, and Toni Kukoc played as the primary backup at the forward position. New big man Bison Dele (then known as Brian Williams) spelled Longley at center, and Jud Buechler served as a fourth option at small forward. Point guard Randy Brown and extra big man Jason Caffey played minimally in the NBA Finals.
For the Jazz, nine-time All-Star and assists leader John Stockton started at point guard next to former All-Star Jeff Hornacek at shooting guard. A full-time starter for the first time, Bryon Russell played small forward alongside league MVP Karl Malone and young seven-footer Greg Ostertag at center.
Utah used Howard Eisley off the bench as Stockton’s backup at point guard, and Shandon Anderson served as Hornacek’s backup at shooting guard. Chris Morris spelled Russell at small forward, Antoine Carr functioned as the reserve power forward behind Malone, and Greg Foster saw time as the second center off the bench. Big man Adam Keefe played sparingly in the series.
Game One: Jazz 82, Bulls 84
The first game of the series was evenly matched with the road Jazz taking a two point lead into the fourth. Late in the quarter the Bulls reclaimed the lead after Pippen nailed a three to cap off a block on Antoine Carr, but Stockton answered with a three to once again take the lead. With 35.8 seconds left, Jordan was fouled and made one of two free throws to tie the game. Malone was subsequently fouled by Rodman with 9 seconds left, but Pippen famously psyched him out by telling him, “Just remember, the mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays, Karl.” Malone missed both foul shots, and Jordan stepped up with a 20-footer at the buzzer to win game one. MJ finished with 31 points and 8 assists to go along with Pippen’s 27 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Malone and Stockton led the Jazz with 23/15 and 16/12 respectively, but Utah came up short in the franchise’s first NBA Finals game.
Game Two: Jazz 85, Bulls 97
The Bulls came out hot and had a 16 point lead by halftime, and their defense held the Jazz to a near-record low 31 points in the first half. Jordan finished with a game-high 38 points to go with 13 rebounds and 9 assists. Pippen and Harper combined for 23 points combined. For Utah, Malone tallied another double-double with 20/13, but it came on 30% shooting. Stockton, Russell, and Hornacek combined for 44 points, but the Jazz now faced a 2-0 deficit as the series moved to Utah.
Game Three: Bulls 93, Jazz 104
In front of their raucous home crowd, the Jazz rediscovered their shooting stroke and led by 16 at halftime. The Bulls rallied back in the fourth quarter, but it was not enough as Utah won their first ever NBA Finals game behind Malone’s monster 37 points, Stockton’s second double-double, and Foster’s surprising 17 points off the bench. Pippen tied a Finals-record with 7 three-pointers en route to 27 points, but Jordan shot a poor 9/22 for 26 points. Brian Williams was the lone bright spot on Chicago’s bench with 16 points, but the series now stood at 2-1 with two more games in Utah.
Game Four: Bulls 73, Jazz 78
Game four was a defensive struggle as both teams shot under 50% from the floor. Late in the game, Jordan made a fast break dunk to give the Bulls a 71-66 lead, but Stockton made a momentum-shifting 3 to cut the deficit to two. After another Jordan basket, Stockton made a clutch steal and made two free throws after a controversial fastbreak foul and the Jazz stole the lead after the point guard found Malone for a lay-up with a full-court pass off a Bulls miss. Chicago failed to score again, and Utah evened the series after a remarkable comeback and now held momentum in the series. Malone and Stockton both turned in double-doubles yet again, and MJ again struggled with 22 points off 11/27 shooting.
Game Five: Bulls 90, Jazz 88
Known famously as “The Flu Game,” Michael Jordan played in a weakened condition due to what many suspected to be a stomach virus. Despite his physical state, MJ led the Bulls to a comeback after falling behind by as many as 16 points in the first half. Down the stretch of a close game, Jordan missed a free throw but recovered the rebound and held for a late shot with under a minute left. Pippen was double-teamed and found Michael for a three to break the tie with 25 seconds left. Ostertag answered with a dunk, but the Jazz lost Longley on defense for a responding dunk to seal the game. Walking to the bench, an exhausted Jordan collapsed into Pippen’s arms and the Bulls took a huge 3-2 series lead heading back to Chicago. MJ’s 38 point performance is considered one of his best based on his condition. Pippen, Hornacek, and Malone all struggled from the field, and Jordan’s will to win proved to be the deciding factor.
Game Six: Jazz 86, Bulls 90
Jordan was feeling healthier in game six, and the Bulls once again found a way to come back against an upstart Jazz first half, helped in part by a three by Buechler late in the third quarter. A 10-0 Bulls run and a three by Kerr gave Chicago the lead, one that they held late in the fourth when Jordan hit a jumper to push it to three. Russell answered with a big three of his own to tie the game, but Kerr played the role of John Paxson by hitting the game-winning jumper with five seconds left off a pass from MJ. Utah could not answer and the Bulls held on for the fifth NBA championship, led by Jordan’s 39 points and 11 rebounds, Pippen’s 23 points and 9 rebounds, and Steve Kerr’s clutch shooting. Four of the five Jazz starters combined for 69 points as they fell in six games.
With another masterful performance on the biggest stage, Michael Jordan yet again won the Finals MVP award, his fifth in a row. With their core roster largely intact, The Bulls would once again return to the Finals in the following year after 62 wins in the regular season and an exhausting seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Inspired by their performance in the franchise’s first NBA Finals, the Utah Jazz remained at the top of the Western Conference in 1998 with 62 wins of their own. A sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals meant that the Jazz earned a shot at revenge against the Bulls in the NBA Finals, this time with home-court advantage thanks to a tie-breaker.