Michael Jordan wasn't himself in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
Unfortunately for the Utah Jazz, he was better than usual.With teammate Scottie Pippen hampered by a sore back, Jordan carried the load with 45 points as Chicago claimed its sixth NBA championship in eight years with an 87-86 victory over in the Delta Center.
Jordan completed a sweep of the league's MVP awards (regular season, all-star game and finals) by making big plays on both ends of the floor. His efforts allowed Chicago to three-peat as NBA champions for the second time.
"It was just an awesome thing. I think you have to say that Michael is the guy that comes through. He's the guy that always comes through in the clutch," Chicago coach Phil Jackson said. "He's a winner, and he's proven it so many times. How many times does he have to show us that he's a real-life hero?"
Jordan scored 16 of his points in the fourth quarter as the Bulls rallied from a 66-61 deficit. He scored the game-winner with 5.2 seconds remaining after stealing the ball away from Karl Malone on the far baseline.
"It was a do-or-die situation," Jordan said after taking 13 seconds off the clock to shoot. "I let the time tick to where I had the court right where I wanted it. It was a great look, and it went in. Once it went in, I knew we had been hanging around long enough. It was the game-winning basket."
Jordan put a fake on Jazz defender Bryon Russell to free himself up and cap what Jackson said was the Chicago star's best-ever performance - one the coach rates higher than Game 5 last year when Jordan fought through a bout with food poisoning to score 38 points in a 90-88 Bulls win in the Delta Center.
"He topped it tonight," Jackson said. "I think it's the best performance I've seen in a critical situation and critical game in a series."
The Bulls were short-handed when Pippen was limited to 26 minutes because of back spasms. A cortisone shot before the game failed to hold as the Bulls forward aggravated the injury on a dunk just 16 seconds into the contest. Minutes later, Pippen found himself in the dressing room watching the game on television while trying to regain his mobility. His back eventually loosened up to where he could play in the second half, but the weight of Chicago's hope to wrap up the series rested squarely on Jordan's shoulders.
And he delivered.
"Right now, we're probably seeing him at the top of his game," Pippen said, "because he has so much knowledge as well as the physical skills that he has when he's out on the court."
While noting Jordan's abilities have yet to decline in any way, Pippen said his teammate is capable of playing five more seasons. At age 35, however, Jordan is contemplating retirement. He'll make his decision later this summer after seeing what the organization decides to do about Jackson and Pippen, whose contracts expire June 30.
"There's still a lot of unanswered questions," Jordan said. "Tonight, it's a lot of sympathetic feelings about this team and where we want it to go."
Bulls chairman Jerry Reins-dorf, however, made his intentions clear. After the game, he made a plea to Jordan and Pippen for another title defense.
"Anything is possible," Pippen said.
Jordan agreed - with much more enthusiasm.
"I'd love for that to happen," he said. "I think that's something that's going to have to be determined over the summer."
For now, the Bulls are content to sit back and bask in the glory of their accomplishment. Defensively, Chicago held Utah to new six-game NBA Finals lows in points (481), free-throw attempts (112) and offensive rebounds . On offense, Jordan extended his NBA record streak to 35 straight NBA Finals games in which he scored 20 or more points.
"It's bittersweet in the sense that it was the toughest route, toughest challenge in the six championships that we've won," Jordan said. "In some people's eyes, no one expected us to fulfill this and that was part of the challenge."
And the Bulls got downright defensive about defending their crown.
"Our defense held up strong the whole series," Jordan said. "`We would never have been in this scenario if it hadn't been for defense."
Jordan's steal from Malone is proof of that. Jackson said it was part of a game-ending scenario that could not be more dramatic.
"When Michael got the steal and Michael got the shot," Dennis Rodman said, "the game was over."
Drawing upon Jackson's Zen Buddhism philosophy, Jordan referred to it all as "the moment." He said things started moving slowly and he was able to see the court very well.
"I never doubted the whole game," Jordan said. ". . . I knew we were going to have an opportunity to win."
The only doubt, seemingly, is whether Game 6 will prove to be the final running of the Bulls.
Jordan said if it is, so be it. His life, he noted, has to eventually continue outside of basketball. A gut feeling will determine when that time will come. Jordan hopes fans will understand. Same goes for the economy and his estimated value of $10 billion to it.
"I would advise you to invest wisely," Jordan joked as he chomped on a victory cigar.
When the smoke clears, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan hopes Jordan decides to continue playing. And he told Jordan so after the game. In an era of sideshows, Sloan said Jordan is to be commended for keeping the game in per-spec-tive.
"I think everybody knows how he'll be remembered," Sloan said, "as the greatest player that has ever played."