This story was revised after being originally published for Bulls.com on April 20, 2011.
It may have been the greatest game ever played.
It was 34 years ago today, in the most historic arena in the NBA, the Boston Garden, a playoff game in which the player eventually to be regarded as the greatest ever to play, Michael Jordan, scored the most points in a playoff game against one of the teams regarded by many as the best ever, the 1986 Boston Celtics, with five of their top six players Hall of Famers.
“That game represented so much of what is great in sport and basketball,” said Bill Walton, the Celtics’ sixth man who fouled out in 25 minutes with 10 points and 15 rebounds.
“It was a phenomenal performance, what Michael was able to do against a team like that,” Walton said of the champion Celtics, who won 67 games and were a record 40-1 at home. “That team could win any type of game, a speed game, a power game, a shooting game, a defensive game, a physical game, a cerebral game. It had balance, depth and talent, coaching experience, great leadership, top management with Red (Auerbach), a great legacy as a franchise on top and a legend in Larry Bird.”
It was Bird who offered the famous “God disguised as Michael Jordan” quote after that game, after Jordan carried a Bulls team to double overtime before finally yielding 135-131.
“He was hitting outside shots, driving to the hole. We had about everyone on the team guarding him,” recalled Bird, now the Pacers’ advisor to the president of basketball operations. “He obviously was in a zone. He kept them in the game with big basket after big basket. We couldn’t stop him. We tried to shade him to help, everything. You were talking about a different type of talent.”
There have been many great individual games in NBA history, great games in big moments. There is Wilt’s never-to-be-matched 100 points, and maybe you make the case Elgin Baylor’s record 61, which Jordan broke, in the 1962 Finals against the Celtics, an amazing series Boston would win in a seventh game in overtime.
Those were great Celtics teams in that era, but much smaller players to go against in an era when the lowest scoring team in the league averaged more that 110 per game.
But consider that after missing 64 games that season with a broken foot and with a patchwork team in which you might argue no one but Jordan could even make the Celtics, Jordan set the all-time scoring record against what many regard as the greatest front line ever in Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. And with Walton back playing at a high level and wining Sixth Man honors after years of injury backing them up.
“The thing that stands out most to me was Michael played so few games that year and to go into a playoff game and have 63 points still is remarkable to me,” said then Bulls reserve John Paxson, now the team’s special advisor of basketball operations. “Boston threw everyone and everything at him. They loaded up their defense to stop him and he scored on every double and triple team he saw.”
Actually, Jordan wasn’t even supposed to play. The Bulls were concerned that he’d return and reinjure his foot and could be out years and perhaps never regain his form. But Jordan insisted on playing the remainder of his NBA sophomore year after what would be the only major injury of his Bulls career. So the team worked out that awkward, escalating minutes limitation that eventually ended after the regular season with the Bulls 30-52, yet in the playoffs. It was the first 50-plus loss team in the playoffs since the 1967-68 Bulls.
“There was so much drama,” said Dave Corzine, the starting center on that team. “Michael coming back, the injuries, the side show, all that stuff. It was more a circus and then we get into the playoffs against Boston, who was much better than us and Michael is just having great games.
“What do I remember?” asked Corzine. “McHale scoring over me repeatedly (27 points and 15 rebounds). I remember that.”
So the Bulls go into Game 1 with the mighty Celtics and Jordan plays 43 minutes, making 18 of 36 shots, 13 of 15 from the line for 49 points against nine-time all-defensive team guard Dennis Johnson.
“Dennis was a prideful defensive player,” recalled Jerry Sichting, who would come off the bench and make what would be the winning shot in the second overtime. “He’s in the shower after that Game 1 when Michael has 49. He’s got the stat sheet stuck to the wall and he’s staring at it. He’s all soaped up and he says, ‘The good news is we beat them. Michael is never going to have another game like that again.’
“Little did he know,” Sichting said with a laugh, “what was coming.”
What was most remarkable about Jordan’s scoring was how effortless it seemed. He went around Boston’s really good perimeter defenders and by their Hall of Fame interior with a blazing first step, instinctively floating into open areas for short jumpers, drives and seemingly easy finishes at the basket. It really wasn’t until late in the overtimes Boston made any serious effort to trap and get the ball out of Jordan’s hands, though he still moved around and through. There were 61 other shots, 27 by Orlando Woolridge. Jordan played 53 of the 58 minutes, but there were many times and multiple sequences where he stayed out of the play. It looked like he could have scored 100 points without pushing all that hard.
“It was a game he reached a certain zone,” said Sam Vincent, a Celtics reserve who later would start in the Bulls backcourt with Jordan. “It’s the zone you hear some players talk about from time to time, where the basket seems bigger, you almost see the moves before you make them, everything is going in. You could see it in his eyes.
“We were throwing a little bit of everything at him,” said Vincent. “Kevin with his long arms, Danny with his tenacious ways, Dennis and his great defensive ability and he’s chewing up everyone standing in front of him. It was a different consciousness you don’t get to often.”
The Bulls started Woolridge, Charles Oakley, Corzine, Kyle Macy and Jordan. They had Oakley defending Parish despite the size difference as Parish wasn’t the primary scorer, and Corzine on the tricky McHale. Woolridge took Bird. The Celtics played Bird against the less mobile Corzine and McHale against Woolridge’s quickness to put size on Woolridge. But Bird also liked to roam the lanes for steals to ignite the Boston break, so he rarely was on a primary scorer.
Macy brought the ball up the first few times, but Jordan did so most of the first quarter, taking high screens from Corzine and penetrating through the Celtics big men. Jordan scored with relative ease, stepping by Johnson quickly and showing that hanging ability, though more so for layups as the Celtics big men protected against the big dunks.
“It was pretty much screen-and-roll the whole game,” said Corzine.
The Bulls took a 33-25 lead after one quarter. Sidney Green was first man off the bench with Gene Banks and Paxson also playing the other significant minutes off the bench. Mike Smrek and George Gervin played briefly and were scoreless.
Ainge took over for Johnson late into the first and into the second, and Jordan had a quiet second quarter, finishing the half with 23 points with the Bulls leading 58-51.
Ainge had joked after Game 1 the way to play Jordan was to “foul him and hope someone else can come in and do the job.”
In the era of the Dirty Harry movies, Sichting said he’d call Clint Eastwood.
Bulls coach Stan Albeck decided to go small to open the second half with Oakley, Woolridge and Banks on the front line going against the Boston big three, a move which didn’t work well as Woolridge forced numerous off balance shots, finishing nine of 27 with all the other Bulls starters at least 50 percent.
The Bulls raised their lead back into double digits from a first half high of 11 as Johnson now began face guarding Jordan and playing him face up without even watching where the ball was when Jordan didn’t have it. The Celtics big guys continued to shade toward Jordan, but the Bulls still held a 91-88 lead going into the fourth quarter. Jordan went into the fourth quarter with 36 points.
“I remember in the huddle people saying to try to push him one way to the side help,” recalled Vincent. “Larry was running over there to help where we were trying to shade him. But he was splitting everything and going around and shooting over.”
The Celtics finally wrestled back the lead on a Bird three with about 11 minutes left as Bird would go on to finish with 36 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
“Early in his career, I always thought he was looking to score every time,” said Bird. “He did not have the talent around him, so he had to be the scorer.”
The Bulls looked in trouble with about seven minutes left when Paxson got a drive blocked and the Celtics, always looking ahead for fast breaks and runouts, threw ahead to Ainge for an easy layup and 104-100 lead. The Celtics’ outlet passing was a thing of beauty.
But Jordan was now taking it on himself, going against the Celtics help and fouling out Walton on a help play midway through the fourth.
“He fouled us all out,” laughed Walton. “It was a different time and space in those days. It really was before the hype and promotion had taken over. Ultimately, Michael did not need any of that stuff. The media coverage wasn’t what it is. Today, you make a shot and they make a television series about you.”
The Celtics big men kept coming out on the pick and roll, and late Jordan got McHale alone. He took a quick step past McHale for a baseline slam, one of the few dunks Jordan got as the Bulls drew within one with three minutes left. That came after Jordan had blocked a Parish drive. Jordan’s short jumper with a little over two minutes left for Jordan’s 50th point in the game gave the Bulls a one point lead.
Boston got the lead back to 116-114 with 27 seconds left. Bird took a right wing jumper, which missed. Parish got the rebound, but Jordan knocked it away and the Bulls got the ball back with six seconds left in regulation. Paxson inbounded to Jordan in the backcourt. Jordan drove and pulled up behind the three point line and missed even as Jordan had not attempted a three all game. But McHale was called for the foul 25 feet away. McHale complained Jordan stuck his arm into McHale as McHale went by to the side.
But back then you only got two free throws for a three point attempt. That didn’t change until 1995-96 when the NBA for three seasons shortened the three point line. So Jordan received two free throws. He made them both to finish regulation with 54 points, 18 in the fourth quarter, and the game tied at 116.
The Bulls took a four-point lead in the first overtime. But the Celtics came back and Jordan had a chance for a winner with a left elbow jumper, which he missed.
Going into the second overtime tied at 125, the Celtics began trapping Jordan in the backcourt and he would miss his first four shots of the second overtime. Jordan had 59 after the first overtime.
But Jordan came back to tie it at 131 with about a minute left with a jumper over Ainge to tie Baylor’s 61 points and then a drive away from McHale’s baseline help and a short shot over a helping Parish at the free throw line for the 63rd point and the tie at 131.
McHale then found Sichting for a jumper for the go ahead basket. Jordan missed and Bird then found Parish on a pick and roll for a short baseline jumper and the final four point margin. Woolridge airballed a three to end it. The final margin would be the Celtics’ biggest lead of the game.
The teams went back to Chicago for Game 3 and Jordan didn’t have much left as Boston won easily to sweep, 122-104. Jordan had 19 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
It was a short week, but an unforgettable game that effectively sent Jordan on the way to his remarkable career.
“I always thought that was his coming out party,” said Sichting. “He does that against the best team in the league on national TV. All of a sudden, the whole country knows.”