“I know it’s ugly but it stays,” said Bulls coach Doug Collins in reference to his refusal to shave his beard until the Bulls were eliminated from the 1989 playoffs. The sixth place Bulls had eliminated the third place Cleveland Cavaliers with Michael Jordan’s heroics in Game 5 of their first round series and now were set to face the Atlantic Division champion New York Knicks who had just swept the Philadelphia 76ers. Though New York and Chicago faced off in the playoffs for the first time in 1981 the rivalry was much more intense by the late 1980s, with the 1989 Eastern Conference Semifinals being the first in a series of classic playoff contests between 1989 and 1996. For the Bulls, this first series represented a crucial step forward, but for New York it began a narrative that would be all too familiar in years to come.
The Bulls had already overachieved by beating the Cavaliers in the first round, but for New York, winning 52 games and the Atlantic Division title was the best basketball the city had seen since the early 1970s and with Cleveland eliminated the opportunity for a championship seemed within their grasp. During the regular season Chicago won three of the five meetings but the Knicks had home court advantage where they were 36-5 and in the midst of a 26 game home win streak. Adding to the drama, the controversial off-season trade that sent Bill Cartwright to the Bulls for Charles Oakley came full circle as the two players faced their old teammates under the bright lights of the playoffs.
The series opened in New York on May 9, 1989, with Chicago fighting fatigue and New York shaking off rust. Game 1 was close until the Knicks built a 90-78 lead early in the 4th quarter. Chicago fought back to force overtime and dominated the extra period to win 120-109. Michael Jordan recorded his first career playoff triple double with 34 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists along with nine of the Bulls seventeen in overtime. Knicks coach Rick Pitino praised the entire Bulls team effort while Bernie Lincicome, critical of Jordan’s supporting cast, described the game as close until, “royal Jordan worked his magic again and the Knicks could only watch in wonder.”
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls fell well short of expectations in Game 2 as the Knicks blasted the lackluster Bulls 114-97, forcing Doug Collins to think about shaving. Jordan, along with Horace Grant, got into foul trouble early and sat the entire third period as the Knicks blew the game open. After the game Jordan faulted “his own stupidity” for his minor contribution of 15 points, a career playoff low, but nevertheless, the Bulls split the games in New York and went back to Chicago Stadium with home court advantage and the series tied 1-1.
Games 3 and 4 were back-to-back games in Chicago, a scheduling move for TV ratings that Doug Collins ripped as harmful to players and had both teams worried about fatigue. The Knicks hoped they could wear Chicago down, but what followed on May 13-14, 1989 were two classic performances by Michael Jordan. Game 3 was a 111-88 blowout by Chicago that included a 42 point second quarter that tied a team playoff record. Jordan finished with 40 points, 15 rebounds, a personal playoff high, 9 assists, 6 steals, and an extremely sore groin injury. After the game, Jordan, before he was rushed to treatment, said he was “questionable” for Game 4, less than 24 hours away, while Knicks coach Rick Pitino speculated about just how badly Jordan was injured.
The following night, May 14, 1989 was Mother’s Day and Michael Jordan, with an obvious limp and sore ego due to the trivialization of his groin injury led the Bulls to a 106-93 victory and a 3-1 lead in the series. Jordan scored 47 points, including 18 in the 4th period, and added 11 rebounds. He also went 23/28 from the free throw line, prompting complaints about the officiating, and scored 13 of the Bulls last 16 points. CBS gave the MVP to Deloris Jordan for Mother’s Day, but it was Michael Jordan who averaged 44 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 assists in Games 3 and 4, leaving the Knicks searching for answers and on the verge of elimination.
Rick Pitino all but guaranteed the series was going seven games and back in New York for Game 5 the Knicks answered the call with a 121-114 victory. Despite being what the New York Times considered the Knicks’ best offensive game of the series, it took Patrick Ewing doing his best Jordan impression to outlast a 17 point 4th quarter charge by the real Michael Jordan to send the series back to Chicago for Game 6 where the Knicks had not won all year.
“They`ve played the best that they can play, And we haven’t touched our potential. We`re still the better team,” said Mark Jackson after New York’s Game 5 victory. The confident Knicks kept Game 6 closer than the previous contests. Scottie Pippen was ejected for fighting Kenny Walker late in the 3rd quarter and the game ended in spectacular fashion as New York’s Trent Tucker converted on a 4 point play that tied the game followed by Jordan’s two free throws with four seconds left, erasing any memory of the missed free throws in Game 4 of the Cleveland series. Jordan finished Game 6 with 40 points, his third such performance of the series. ”Michael Jordan is the best player to ever put on a uniform,” explained Rick Pitino as the Knicks packed for New York, but, as Clifton Brown in the New York Times pointed out, it was not just Jordan, who averaged 35 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists for the series, that ended New York’s season.
In the end, maybe it was solely Jordan, scoring over 40 points in the three biggest games of the series, who prevented the Knicks from capitalizing on the most success they had seen in almost two decades. The loss in 1989 would be only the first in a series of playoff defeats for New York at the hands of Chicago during the 1990s, which intensified the rivalry into a grudge match. According to Doug Collins, for the Bulls, the Game 6 victory in 1989 “was the biggest victory in the history of the franchise,” putting Chicago back in the conference finals for the first time since 1975 against the Detroit Pistons who had won 34 of their last 37 games, including two consecutive playoff sweeps. In 1989 nobody predicted the Bulls would beat either Cleveland or New York and even though the same predictions of their demise followed them to Detroit the Bulls took Game 1 because as Coach Collins, who had to delay shaving for one more series, said, “anytime you have a Michael Jordan on the floor, anything can happen.”
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