1998: Bulls versus Jazz Round Two (The Second Three-Peat)

Background

Even though the Bulls were coming off yet another repeat championship, speculation was stirring around the league that this would be the last season of the team’s dynasty. Tension was growing between Phil Jackson and GM Jerry Krause, and it was suspected that Michael Jordan would decide to retire at season’s end as well. Despite the rumors and Scottie Pippen missing half of the regular season to injury, Chicago reeled off another 62 wins, earning Jordan his 5th MVP award. In the playoffs, the Bulls swept the New Jersey Nets and beat the Charlotte Hornets in five games. In the Eastern Conference Finals they met the Indiana Pacers, and the series went seven games–the home team winning each time. Outlasting the upstart Pacers and a game four game-winner by Reggie Miller, the Bulls reached the NBA Finals for the third straight year.

The Jazz were disappointed about losing in the NBA Finals the previous season, and they used this disappointment as motivation for revenge. Their core roster remained intact, and the duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone remained the best tandem in the league. In the regular season they marched to a Conference-best 62 wins, earning the number one seed out West in the process. In the playoffs, the Jazz first had to stave off the Houston Rockets in a tough five-game series. In the second round, Utah defeated young Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in five games before meeting the young Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The Jazz swept the Lakers to set up a rematch of the previous NBA Finals, but this time they held home-court advantage after beating the Bulls twice in the regular season.

Lineups

The Bulls’ starting back-court remained intact with Ron Harper starting at point guard alongside five-time Finals MVP Michael Jordan. The front-court saw a little change due to Pippen’s regular season injury. Toni Kukoc started at small forward for most of the regular season and move to power forward to accommodate Scottie Pippen at small forward. Luc Longley was still the starting center.

Off the bench, clutch shooter Steve Kerr was the third guard, and Dennis Rodman came off the bench at power forward in the Finals. Scott Burrell and Jud Buechler provided depth on the wing for Chicago. Randy Brown was again the fourth guard off the bench, and Dickey Simpkins and Bill Wennington seldom saw time as big men.

The Jazz also started the same two guards in the back-court with John Stockton at point guard and Jeff Hornacek at shooting guard. Despite coming off the bench in the regular season, Bryon Russell reclaimed the starting small forward spot alongside Karl Malone at power forward. The center position saw Greg Foster start for most of the regular season, and Adam Keefe (the regular season small forward) took the spot late in the Finals.

Howard Eisley remained Stockton’s backup at point guard, and second year guard Shandon Anderson backed up Hornacek. The front-court backups consisted of Chris Morris and Antoine Carr at forward and Greg Foster and Greg Ostertag at center. Rookie Jacque Vaughn played sparingly at guard in the NBA Finals.

Game One: Bulls 85, Jazz 88 (OT)

Hosting game one in Utah, the Jazz held serve through the first three quarters, but a 7-0 run allowed the Bulls to tie the game late in the fourth. After Malone scored four straight points, two free throws and a tough bank shot from Longley tied the game and sent it to overtime. In the extra period the Jazz jumped out to the lead, and after a clutch three from Kukoc, Pippen’s three-pointer to tie missed long. Despite shooting 36% from the floor, Malone delivered a 21/14 double-double in the win, and Stockton and Russell combined for 39 points. Jordan and Pippen combined for 54 points but it wasn’t enough as Utah took game one.

Game Two: Bulls 93, Jazz 88

The last time Michael Jordan and the Bulls faced a deficit in the NBA Finals in 1991, they responded by reeling off four straight victories and won their first championship. They again responded to adversity in game two by building separate seven-point leads, only for the Jazz to answer back each time. The defining factor of the game turned out to be offensive rebounds–Chicago claimed 18 to Utah’s 9. Steve Kerr grabbed one of his own of a missed shot and found Jordan open underneath for the lay-up and-1, giving the Bulls the lead for good. MJ finished with 37 points, and Pippen and Kukoc combined for 34. Hornacek led the Jazz with 20 points, but Malone struggled from the floor with 31% shooting, and Utah couldn’t capitalize off 32 bench points. The series was now tied 1-1 heading back to Chicago.

Game Three: Jazz 54, Bulls 96

The Bulls’ defense clamped down on the Jazz after Karl Malone started 6/6 from the floor and held Utah to an NBA-record low 54 points in game three. All 12 members of the Bulls scored in the game as they took a 2-1 series lead, led by Jordan’s 24 points, stalwart defense by Dennis Rodman on Malone, and all-around quality play by Kukoc and Pippen. Utah’s offense shot a collective 30% from the floor, with Malone the only player in double figures with 22 points.

Game Four: Jazz 82, Bulls 86

The Jazz faced a must-win game in Chicago, but it was the Bulls that came out ahead at the end of the fourth contest. A back-and-forth affair, both teams shot under 43% from the field, and the game wasn’t decided until the final minutes when the Bulls claimed the lead for good. Jordan was huge with 34 points, Pippen delivered 28/9/5, and Rodman snagged 14 huge rebounds. Malone was again Utah’s only offensive option with 21 points, and the Jazz now faced elimination with the series 3-1.

Game Five: Jazz 83, Bulls 81

The Bulls appeared to be on their way to a sixth championship after Toni Kukoc’s 17 first half points helped establish a six point lead. Karl Malone refused to roll over, though, scoring a series-best 39 points, and seldom-used forward Antoine Carr pitched in an unexpected 12 points off the bench. Jordan and Kukoc combined for 58 points, but MJ’s attempted three to win at the buzzer came up short. The series now stood at 3-2 heading back to Salt Lake City, Utah for the final two games.

Game Six: Bulls 87, Jazz 86

After Scottie Pippen injured his back after the opening dunk of the game, it looked like MJ would need to shoulder a larger burden than usual. He responded by delivering an historic performance–one that may have been his best ever. Over the course of the game, Jordan carried the Bulls’ offense with 45 points and kept it close. The final minute was almost too perfect to be scripted. Stockton hit a three to break an 83-83 tie and put the Jazz ahead. MJ answered with a driving lay-up, and then doubled back after Hornacek screened to post up Malone. Jordan swatted at the ball and stole it. With time winding down, Michael drove on Bryon Russell and crossed over at the top of the key and nailed the go-ahead jumper with five seconds left. Chicago held on to win it as Stockton’s three bounced off the rim. Malone’s 31 points came in a losing effort, and MJ was fittingly awarded the Finals MVP for the sixth time.

Aftermath

With their second three-peat, the Chicago Bulls ended their decade-long dynasty. Phil Jackson would not return as coach the following season. Scottie Pippen was traded in the offseason to the Houston Rockets, and Dennis Rodman was released. Michael Jordan announced his retirement after the 1998 season, and he left the Bulls as the undisputed greatest player of all time. The Bulls would struggle for the next decade and returned to prominence in 2011 when they reached the Eastern Conference Finals again.

Their loss in the 1998 NBA Finals was a heart breaker for the Utah Jazz, as victory in game six had seemed so close. In the coming years, the franchise would struggle to realize the same success. Karl Malone won the 1999 MVP award, but age would play a factor in his departure after the 2003 season. John Stockton retired from the NBA the same year as the all-time leader in assists and steals. The Jazz would see success again in 2007 when they reached the Western Conference Finals.

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