The Bulls & the New York Knicks During the ‘90s
After finally burying their longtime archrivals Detroit during the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals and then stampeding past Los Angeles to claim the franchise’s first World Championship, the Chicago Bulls were without a doubt the NBA’s it team. However, they quickly came to the realization that they were no longer lovable underdogs, but rather they now sported a colossal bullseye on their back.
With Detroit nothing more than an afterthought, Chicago soon encountered a hungry, desperate and hardnosed New York Knicks crew. After Pat Riley took over as New York’s head coach in the summer of 1991, the Bulls had a new and worthy rival.
In looking over the makeup of his roster, Riley decided to shape his squad along the lines of the Detroit Bad Boys, which was the opposite of how his Showtime Lakers teams achieved success during the 1980s — a free-wheeling, run-and-gun, entertaining style of basketball. Truthfully, it was the only thing he could do, as other than future Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing, there weren’t any graceful scorers on the Knicks. What Riley had to work with was a bunch of brawny bruisers in the likes of Anthony Mason, ex-Bull Charles Oakley and Xavier McDaniel. The only way they could compete with Chicago was to slow the tempo whenever possible and stress defense and rebounding, focusing the team’s offense around Ewing. Chicago, on the other hand, wanted to run with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen leading the break. And although Jordan could seemingly score at will, the Bulls’ offensive scheme was intended to be a group effort thanks to the famed Triangle Offense.
Chicago and New York ended up meeting in the playoffs five times in six years. That kind of familiarity bred a great deal of bitterness between the two teams. There also seemed to be personal animosity between the two head coaches, as both Phil Jackson and Riley never passed up an opportunity to needle one another in the media. It was also a somewhat natural rivalry, in that Chicago had long been considered America’s Second City to New York’s Big Apple.
The first time the Bulls and Knicks met in the playoffs during this era was in 1991, but the series proved to be a cakewalk for Chicago. New York snuck into to postseason with a mark of 39-43, worst among all 16 qualifying teams. When they faced the top-seeded Bulls in the opening round, it was clear from the start they were unable of put up much of a fight.
Chicago destroyed the Knicks in the series opener 126-85. Chicago then closed out the best-of-five series by winning the next two easily, 89-79 and 103-94, respectively.
Riley arrived before the start of the 1991-92 season and the Knicks stormed to a 12-game improvement, jumping from 39 wins to 51. Chicago, however, dominated the league, posting an NBA-best 67-15 mark. In the opening round of the playoffs the Bulls swept Miami while New York outlasted Detroit in five to set up a second round matchup.
The Knicks successfully shut down the Bulls’ running game (Chicago had averaged 117.3 points against Miami) in the opener, winning 94-89 at the Chicago Stadium. Chicago bounced back to capture Game 2, 86-78, although once again New York was able to keep the Bulls’ high-powered offense in check.
Jordan broke out in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden, notching 32 points to lead the Bulls to a 94-86 victory. The win recaptured home court advantage for Chicago, but the following day New York took it back thanks to a 93-86 victory of their own.
In Game 5 at the Chicago Stadium, Jordan once again took command, relentlessly driving to the basket and either scoring at the rim or making his way to the charity stripe, tallying a game-high 37 points, as the Bulls won, 96-88. Afterwards Riley complimented Jordan by saying, “Michael’s willingness to constantly go to the basket and challenge our defense tells you all you need to know.”
The series shifted back to the Garden for Game 6 and Riley’s renegades refused to lay down as they quickly stormed to a 24-17 lead in the opening 12 minutes, and closed with a 32-16 run in the fourth quarter to even the series with a 100-86 thumping of Chicago. Ewing and backup guard John Starks led all scorers with 27 points, supported by McDaniel’s 24 while Jordan led Chicago with 21 and Pippen chipped in 18. New York held the Bulls to just 39.8% shooting and 3-of-11 (27.3%) from long distance, while the Knicks connected on 52% from the field and knocked down 21-of-26 from the free throw line.
In the series-deciding Game 7 at the Stadium, the Bulls took no prisoners, pounding New York 110-81. Chicago’s Big 3 of Jordan (42 minutes), Pippen (45 minutes) and Horace Grant (41 minutes) barley left the court. Jordan led all scorers with 42 points, while Pippen posted a triple-double of 17 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. Grant chipped in 14 points, six rebounds and four blocks.
The Bulls then went on to knock-off Cleveland and Portland, both in six games, to claim their second straight NBA title.
Riley drove the Knicks to a 60-win season and the Atlantic Division title the following year while Chicago coasted to 57-25 record. However, the start of the playoffs jumpstarted the Bulls as they went on to sweep both Atlanta and Cleveland before meeting the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
New York, who had dispatched Indiana (3-1) and Charlotte (4-1) in the opening two rounds, owned home court advantage over the two-time defending champs by virtue of their better regular season record. They maintained that edge by defeating the Bulls 98-90 and 96-91 in the first two games of the series. Jordan bitterly complained that New York was playing much like the old Pistons, endangering everyone’s health and well-being with cheap shots and dirty play.
As if being down 0-2 wasn’t bad enough, reports also began to surface that Jordan had been spotted gambling in Atlantic City in the early morning hours before Game 2. Chicago dismissed the topic, claiming Jordan knew how to take care of himself and was always ready to play..
Despite the circus swirling around them the Bulls were able to pound New York 103-83 in Game 3 at the Stadium. Pippen led all scorers with 29 points while Jordan made his way to the stripe for 17 free throw attempts in adding 22 points while also dishing 11 assists. Two days later Chicago continued its assault with a 105-95 series-knotting victory. Jordan poured in 54 points. And although the series was heading back to Gotham City for Game 5, momentum clearly had shifted to Chicago.
Game 5 is one contest Knicks fans will never forget. The game went back-and-forth, especially so down the stretch. But the most memorable moment occurred with under a minute to play when New York’s Charles Smith failed to convert on several attempts while standing under the basket, with Pippen deflecting two of Smith’s shots. The Knicks could only hang their heads afterwards as Chicago sprinted to the locker room with a 97-94 victory. Jordan had posted a triple-double of 29 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds while Pippen added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds.
Back at the Stadium for Game 6 the Bulls methodically went about their business in winning their fourth straight game, 96-88, to close out the series. Chicago then went on to beat Phoenix to capture its third straight NBA World Championship.
When the two foes met again the following year in the playoffs, life had changed drastically for the Bulls. Just before the start of training camp in early October, 1993, Jordan shocked everyone by announcing he was retiring from basketball. (A few months later he tried his hand at playing minor league baseball with the Chicago White Sox’s AA affiliate, the Birmingham Barons.) In his absence Chicago, led by Pippen, won 55 games, far more than anyone had predicted. However, Atlanta bested the Bulls’ overall won-loss record by two games to capture the Central Division, while New York also posted 57 victories to take the Atlantic Division’s top spot. Thus after the Bulls swept Cleveland (3-0) and New York dumped New Jersey (3-1) in the opening round of the playoffs, the two rivals were set to go toe-to-toe once again in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
In the opener at Madison Square Garden, Chicago raced to an early 15-point lead but couldn’t hold it, as New York’s late kick (outscoring the Bulls 28-15 in the fourth quarter) proved to be the difference in a 90-86 come from behind victory. Pippen, who had been named MVP of the All-Star Game earlier that year, led all scorers with 24 and handed out a game-high seven assists. But New York’s suffocating defense forced 16 turnovers and held the Bulls to just 42.5% shooting.
The same formula played out in Game 2, as Chicago once again started fast, leading 27-23 after one, then went on to hold a 51-47 edge at halftime. A tight, back-and-forth third quarter saw the Bulls’ advantage shaved by a point (72-69) heading into the final stanza. That’s when New York kicked it into gear once again, outpacing Chicago 27-19 to come away with a 96-91 victory, giving the Knicks a commanding 2-0 series lead.
Horace Grant and BJ Armstrong led the Bulls with 23 points apiece while Pippen was close behind with 22.
Patrick Ewing led all scorers with 26 while Anthony Mason came off the Knicks’ bench to add 15 points and 14 rebounds.
Game 3 at the Stadium was a raucous event from the opening tip. In fact the contest ended up being decided on the final play.
Chicago never trailed and appeared to have the game won easily, outplaying New York from the start, eventually leading by as many as 22 points late in the third quarter. But another Knicks fourth-quarter comeback started with a 17-2 run to pull them to within seven (90-83) with seven minutes left to play. It was clear the Bulls were rattled as New York kept charging hard to set up the dramatic finish.
Earlier in the game a fight had broken out with less than three minutes to go before halftime.
Chicago backup guard Jo Jo English started trash-talking and delivered an elbow to New York’s starting point guard Derek Harper away from the ball. Then when play stopped after Grant had been called for a foul under the basket, Harper and English began shoving one another. Suddenly Harper threw a punch and soon tossed English to the ground, falling on top of him. Players and coaches from both benches stormed the court resulting in a pileup. Fans in the first couple of rows were forced to scurry for safety as the players’ momentum carried them into the stands. It was an ugly scene, and it happened right in front of NBA Commissioner David Stern who was sitting at midcourt.
All-in-all it took about five minutes to restore order, and luckily, no other fights broke out while Harper and English were wrestling.
The standing room only crowd of 18,676, which was already amped up before the fight, proceeded to find a new noise level. And the Bulls responded, taking a 57-46 lead at halftime.
Not only was Ewing held in check in the opening half, scoring only two first-quarter points, but he was dominated by Bulls center Bill Cartwright, who posted 10 points of his own. A lack of inside scoring had been one of Chicago’s major problems during the first two games, but Cartwright’s outburst gave the Bulls a real shot in the arm.
By the start of the 4th quarter Chicago found themselves up 89-70, but once again New York, with Ewing leading the way, caught fire and almost stole the game — almost — as the final 1.8 seconds proved to be the most important of the day.
After Ewing connected on the hook shot to knot the game at 102 Chicago called a time out to draw up a final play. Jackson’s proposal called for Pippen, who up to that point had scored 25 points, to inbound the ball to rookie Toni Kukoc at the top of the key for the game-winning shot attempt. The Bulls’ captain was not on board with the idea and didn’t hide his frustration when it was time to take the floor, forcing Jackson to call a second consecutive timeout.
When the Bulls left the second huddle and walked onto the hardwood, Pete Myers was the new in-bounder as Pippen had pulled himself out of the game. Myers quickly found Kukoc open behind the circle after the rookie had freed himself from the clutches of Anthony Mason. The 6’11” Croatian sensation, in one motion, caught Myers’ pass and launched a shot towards the rim, hitting nothing but net to give the Bulls a 104-102 victory. It was the fourth time Kukoc had nailed a long jumper to win a game that year.
Afterwards Jackson told the media: “As far as the last play goes, Scottie Pippen was not involved. He asked out of the play. That is all I’m going to say about it.”
Pippen followed up saying: “Phil and I kind of exchanged words. That was pretty much it. It wasn’t Phil taking me out of the game, we pretty much exchanged words and I took a seat. I think it was frustration. We really blew this game as much as we possibly could. We were able to pull off the win. Toni made another outstanding shot and it was a well-called play by Phil.”
The momentum reaped from Kukoc’s buzzer beater helped carry Chicago to a 95-83 victory in Game 4, also at the Stadium, tying the series at 2-2. Once again Pippen led the way with 25 points, eight rebounds, six assists and two steals.
The finish to Game 5 in New York would prove just as controversial as Game 3’s Bulls victory. This time it was Chicago holding onto a one-point lead in the closing seconds as the Knicks looked to take the last shot. New York’s Hubert Davis launched a jumper from far away as Pippen raced and leapt towards him to attempt to block the shot. The ball just got past Pippen’s fingertips and bounced off target, but veteran referee Hue Hollins whistled Pippen for a foul, sending Davis to the line for two free throws. Pippen, Jackson and the entire city of Chicago exploded as there was no contact with Davis. TV replays also showed no contact, but that didn’t matter as fouls were judgment calls back then and not subject to appeal. Davis sank both charity tosses giving the Knicks an 87-86 win and a 3-2 series lead. Afterwards, head referee Darrel Garretson said to a reporter that he believed Hollins’ call was wrong, that Pippen didn’t foul Davis, but there was nothing he could do.
To Chicago’s credit they bounced back by dominating the Knicks in Game 6 at the Stadium, 93-79, in what turned out to be the last game ever played at the ol’ Madhouse on Madison Street. This also was the game where Pippen, sprinting out on a fastbreak, received a pass on the fly from Myers and soared high above the rim as well as Ewing for a slam dunk, creating one of the most memorable moments in Pippen’s storied career as well as the history of the Bulls franchise.
“It was one of those games where we were all frustrated and tired of the Knicks holding and knocking us to the floor,” Pippen recalled years later. “After that dunk, I sort of overreacted, standing over Patrick while he was laying on the ground as the crowd went nuts. But hey, any time you dunk over a Hall of Fame seven-footer, it’s something special.
Unfortunately, so many emotion-charged moments seemed to take a toll on the Bulls. New York’s stifling defense again did a number on Chicago’s offense in Game 7, with the Knicks coming out on top, 87-77. New York’s victory not only was the first time they defeated the Bulls in the playoffs in four years, it also meant the reigning three-time NBA World Champions had been dethroned.
The Knicks went on to beat Indiana in seven to claim the Eastern Conference crown but then lost to Houston, also in seven games in the 1994 NBA Finals.
Chicago and New York did not meet in the 1995 playoffs, as the Knicks came up short against Indiana and the Bulls fell to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Afterwards Riley left the Knicks to become the head coach and part-owner of the Miami Heat, which somewhat dulled the edge of the Bulls/Knicks rivalry. However, Riley’s successor, longtime assistant Jeff Van Gundy, who had taken over the reins of the Knicks, did his best to stir the pot, often exchanging insults with Jackson in the media as well as picking a verbal fight with Jordan, who by that time had returned to play with the Bulls.
After that one year hiatus, Chicago and New York once again met in the (1996) Eastern Conference Semifinals. That season the Bulls went out and established an NBA record of 72 regular-season victories, and went on to sweep Riley’s Miami squad in the opening round. Under Van Gundy’s direction New York posted a 47-35 mark on the year, and went on to sweep Cleveland in the opening round to set up another postseason dance with Chicago.
Van Gundy’s game plans were very much in line with what Riley instilled while in the New York. The Knicks were incapable of playing a fast pace, so they looked to slow the tempo, grinding out every possession.
To New York’s credit, they played tough, hard-nosed defense and were able to capture an overtime win over the Bulls, 102-99, in Game 3, giving Chicago its only loss in the opening three rounds of the playoffs.
In the end the Bulls, with Jordan, Pippen and former Pistons Bad Boy, Dennis Rodman, simply had far too many weapons and were too talented for the Knicks, as the Bulls closed out the series in five games.