Coming off of a record-breaking 1995-96 season, what could the Chicago Bulls do for an encore? How about 69 wins and a second consecutive NBA title, the fifth for the Bulls in seven years? That’s exactly what the Bulls accomplished in 1996-97, posting a 69-13 record and winning the championship with a memorable six-game triumph over the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals.
Despite the gaudy record, defending the title wasn’t easy. Led by the dynamic duo of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, the Bulls were able to overcome injuries to Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley, suspensions and injuries to rebounding specialist Dennis Rodman and constant public and media scrutiny to win the Central Division by 13 games over the Atlanta Hawks.
Jordan made more NBA history along the way, becoming the first player in league history to record a triple-double at the All-Star Game (14 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists). Teammate Steve Kerr reigned on All-Star Saturday as the winner of the AT&T Shootout.
The Bulls finished one game shy of recording back-to-back 70 win seasons by losing three of their final four games. Jordan led the league in scoring (29.6 ppg) and set an NBA record with 2,000 points for the 10th time in his career.
Despite that late “slump,” the Bulls were ready come playoff time. They held off a tenacious Washington Bullets team to record a first-round sweep, then disposed of the Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat in five games apiece, setting up the series with the Jazz.
In the Finals, Jordan took center stage once again. He won Game 1 with a buzzer-beater, then posted 38 points, 13 rebounds and 9 assists to give the Bulls a 2-0 series lead. After the Jazz won twice at home to tie the series at 2-2, Jordan added another epic to his legacy; playing despite a stomach virus, Jordan poured in 38 points, including a three-pointer in the final minute to give the Bulls a 90-88 win in Game 5. He added 39 more points in the Game 6 clincher and fed Kerr for the game-winning shot with only five seconds to play. For the fifth time in five championship seasons, Jordan was named the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player. At season’s end, Jordan and coach Phil Jackson signed new one-year contracts, providing the Bulls an opportunity to ‘three-peat’ for the second time in the decade.