“See, I’m not that bad, Cleveland,” said Michael Jordan after he missed a shot at the buzzer in his return Cleveland on April 9, 1995, a game labelled “The Miss.” During the 1980s and 90s Chicago and Cleveland became one of the storied match ups in the NBA, and though these two teams have been playing one another since 1970 the rivalry has, neither before nor since, reached the level of popularity it did between 1984 and 1998. As the 2014-15 season approaches most projections have the Cavaliers and the Bulls finishing atop the Eastern Conference, once again, placing this rivalry into the spotlight it enjoyed decades ago. The history between the Bulls and the Cavaliers is rich, and with the future bright for these two teams, it is appropriate to take a trip back to the 1980s and 90s when Bulls/Cavs basketball was at its best.
In 1995, the former Cavalier and then member of the Bulls Ron Harper said that the “Cavs always felt if they could just get by the Bulls, they could have gotten to the finals.” In reality, Chicago dominated the rivalry winning sixty percent of the games between 1984 and 1998 and all five playoff series. There were plenty of excellent regular season games that usually involved Michael Jordan torching Cleveland for an absurd amount of points. Notable performances included Jordan’s fifty-two points on December 17, 1987, a game in which Craig Ehlo said he was “handed his breakfast, lunch and dinner all in one night,” and Jordan’s fifty-four point fourteen rebound performance in the season opener on November 3, 1989, which also happened to be Phil Jackson’s first regular season game as coach. Lastly, Jordan set his career high with a sixty-nine point explosion in Cleveland on March 28, 1990. Craig Ehlo, who guarded Jordan most of the night said afterward that “a guy like that should get 70…he just amazes me.”
The atmosphere was heightened each time they played, but the playoff battles wrote this rivalry’s history. In 1988 the Bulls and Cavs went five games in a memorable playoff series that featured Michael Jordan’s back-to-back fifty point performances in Games 1 & 2. In Game 1 on April 28, 1988, Jordan, fought off a bad cold, scared the entire city of Chicago when he landed awkwardly on his knee, and scored fifty points in a 104-93 victory at Chicago Stadium. Craig Ehlo, who had the unfortunate job of guarding Jordan during many of his scoring outbursts, handled it pretty well after Game 1 by saying, “I held him to 48 points or whatever he got. Pretty good huh?”
Feeling better for Game 2, Jordan scored fifty-five points, became the first player in NBA history to score fifty points in back to back playoff games, and, according to the Tribune, either broke or tied fourteen team playoff records in two games. John Paxson described the performances as something he could only ruin by talking about, Scottie Pippen declared Michael Jordan “God’s gift to the world,” and the Cavaliers were left stunned down 2-0. The Bulls lost the next two games but went on the win the series in Game 5 at Chicago Stadium.
Cleveland and Chicago met again in the first round in 1989, but the Cavaliers, having won fifty-seven games that season, including all six against the Bulls, talked sweep. For the second consecutive year, it would take five games to decide the winner between the two teams. Horace Grant called Game 1 on April 28, 1989, the best game he had been involved in as a Bull and during the third period when Chicago was up big, Jordan stopped at the scorers table to say “sweep my butt.” During the series Jordan predicted the Bulls would defeat Cleveland in four games and the Bulls entered Game 4 in the Stadium with a chance to end the series. On May 5, 1989 Michael Jordan scored fifty points but granted Brad Daughtery’s wish and missed a free throw that could have sealed the game with nineteen seconds left. Chicago went on to lose the game 108-105 in overtime sending the series back to Cleveland for the fifth and deciding game.
Game 5 was May 7, 1989. The game was close with the teams exchanging leads nine times in the last three minutes. Jordan scored forty-four but the last two broke Cleveland hearts and ended their season as only Michael Jordan could. After the game a shocked Brad Daughtery marveled at Jordan’s hang time and called it “the most outstanding shot I’ve ever seen,” and six years later Ron Harper talked about that game’s long-term implications for the Cavaliers and himself here .
“The shot” began a thirteen game win streak agains the Cavaliers that would not end until February 17, 1992. Chicago again met Cleveland in the 1992 Eastern Conference Finals and dispatched them in six games on their way to their second straight title. The next year the Bulls and Cavaliers collided in the Eastern Conference Semifinals where history did its best to repeat itself. The series wasn’t as competitive as others and the Bulls won the first three games with Game 4 on May 17, 1993. Cleveland, down 3-0, was on its home court, up by ten points in the 4th period, and it looked as though the series was going back to Chicago Stadium. But the Bulls mounted a comeback and with the game tied, Jordan got the ball with seven seconds left and proceed to hit a 15-foot jumpshot over Gerald Wilkins to end the series. “The Shot II” did not stave off elimination for Chicago but for the Cavaliers it was an all too familiar nightmare.
Jordan retired after the Bulls won their third consecutive championship in 1993 but even without Michael Jordan, the Bulls, led by Scottie Pippen, knocked the Cavaliers out of playoffs again in a three game sweep in 1994, and as Bulls fans celebrated the return of Michael Jordan in 1995, Cavs fans no doubt shuddered at what was expected to be more years of torment. Chicago won ten of the fourteen games games played against Cleveland during their second 3-peat from 1995-1998 but the two never met in the playoffs and Michael Jordan never ended Cleveland’s season with a heartbreaking shot. The story of the Bulls and the Cavaliers did not begin in the 1980s nor end in 1998 when Michael Jordan took his last shot as a Chicago Bull, and with Chicago and Cleveland once again in the spotlight of the Eastern Conference, it remains to be seen what path this iconic rivalry will take. Fans can only hope that the Bulls, led by Derrick Rose, can unleash as much emotional pain on the Cavaliers as the Bulls led by Michael Jordan.
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