90s NBA basketball was synonymous with two things: Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. No other player or franchise put their stamp on that era more than them, evidenced by the six NBA championships MJ and his Bulls bagged during that time. Though a number of worthy challengers purported to step up in an attempt to dethrone His Airness and the Bulls from their throne atop the basketball world, all of them failed miserably.
What was the biggest blowout in NBA Finals history? The biggest blowout in NBA Finals History was when the Utah Jazz were defeated 96-54 in Game 3 of the 1998 NBA Finals by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
In the multitude of opponents that were dispatched, perhaps none fell more spectacularly than John Stockton, Karl Malone and the ’98 Utah Jazz in Game 3 of that year’s NBA Finals, where they were handed a 96-54 defeat by the then two-time defending champions. This game, like some His Airness’ awe-inspiring achievements on the court, is not given the appreciation it deserves despite the fact that Jordan and the Bulls set two NBA Finals records, which remain unbroken to date. They are: the record for the largest margin of victory (42 points), and the record for the fewest points allowed by a team in a Finals game (54).
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Battle lines drawn
The date was June 7, 1998. The location, the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. One either side of the hardwood stood the best two teams in the NBA: the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz. Each team boasted of a 62-20 regular season record, which was the best in either conference and rosters with future first-ballot Hall of Famers. The series was tied 1-1 and Game 3 was the perfect opportunity for either team to stake their claim on the coveted Larry O’Brien trophy moving forward.
On one side of the court were the Utah Jazz with a starting lineup of guards John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek, forwards Karl Malone and Bryon Russell, and center Greg Ostertag. On the other side were the Chicago Bulls with a starting lineup led by a back court of Michael Jordan and Ron Harper and a front court of forwards Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc and Center Luc Longley. The Bulls were looking to add on to their impressive postseason homecourt record of 31-4 and the Jazz were out to steal one to ensure that they would get to play another game in front of their adoring fans in Salt Lake City.
Back and forth
The game started a little slow for the Bulls and the Jazz jumped to a 6-1 lead after around three minutes of play. Jordan then appeared to have had enough of it and posted up Hornacek on the other end of the floor. Ostertag came over to double team Jordan only for the five-time NBA MVP to execute a perfect spin move and bank a shot off the glass. That was the beginning of the end for the Jazz as only Malone appeared capable of causing problems for the Bulls defense, having scored all 10 points for the visitors at that point.
Bulls coach Phil Jackson called a timeout and substituted Kukoc, who had struggled to contain The Mailman. The Zen Master then put in one of the best defensive and most pesky players in NBA history in Dennis Rodman. Chicago finished the first quarter on an 8-0 run to lead 17-14.
The turning point
In the second quarter, Chicago stepped up their defensive effort, limiting the rest of the Utah team outside of Malone to 4/23 shooting by the midway point. Malone was equally finding it had to get to the basket thanks to Pippen and Longley, who took turns guarding the former regular-season MVP. Pippen and Harper equally made life difficult for Jazz playmaker, Stockton, forcing turnovers and disrupting possessions. On the offensive end, Jordan, Pippen and Kukoc combined to give the Bulls a 12-point lead before the Jazz called a timeout.
The quarter ended with the Bulls up 49 -31. Perhaps the most memorable moment from the quarter for the defending champions was not a dazzling play or a basket made but Jordan reprimanding Harper for a defensive lapse that allowed Jazz guard, Jeff Hornacek, to score. That alone testified to Chicago’s mindset throughout the game. Veteran NBC reporter Bob Kostas put it best in his soundbite to end the quarter when he said, “Chicago has been stifling with their defense.” At the half, Utah had 12 turnovers that led to 12 Chicago points, with Stockton only managing 2 points and 4 turnovers. On the other hand, the Bulls, thanks to their Big Three of Jordan, Pippen, and Kukoc who had combined to score 38 of their teams 49 points, were having a much better night.
Adjustments by Jazz coach, Jerry Sloan, didn’t change the visitor’s fortunes in the second half as Chicago totally clamped down on Utah’s offense, forcing turnover after turnover and miss after miss. The third quarter ended with a majority of the Jazz’s starters on the bench looking dejected and the Bulls holding a comfortable 27-point lead. The score read 72-45.
Throwing in the towel
By the beginning of the fourth, the Jazz appeared to have had enough and were ready to call it a night. Halfway into the quarter, the Bulls lead had grown to 32 points and Jordan, who had scored 24 points on 14 shots, was icing his knees vividly content with his performance in the game. After the final whistle, the box score read 96-54. Malone, who had scored 12 points on a perfect 6 for 6 field goals in the opening quarter, was held to 2 points, 7 points and 1 point in the remaining three quarters to end the game with 22 points.
The saying “defense wins championships” rang true for Chicago, who won the game because of the sheer tenacity of their defense. The Bulls were ninth in the league in scoring that season despite Jordan winning his 10th scoring title. However, thanks to their suffocating defense, which Bulls assistant coach Tex Winter called “Unleashing the Dobermans”, Chicago handed the Jazz the beating of their lives.
The Bulls’ Secret Weapon
One of the commentators during the match pointed out that Chicago had the three things in an athlete that you cannot teach: the size, the speed, and the skill. The length of the Bulls team, and particularly that of their starting lineup, was undoubtedly one of their greatest secret weapons. The squad, led by their All-NBA Defensive Team stars; Jordan and Pippen, were able to switch and guard every player from 1 through 5.
Bulls point guard Ron Harper could guard Jazz center Greg Ostertag and the get the ball out of the big man’s hands with the help of his teammates. Chicago forward Scottie Pippen, rebound maestro Dennis Rodman and Center Luc Longley could equally battle post-up players like Jazz talisman Karl Malone, wearing out their opponents’ best offensive weapons.
Many NBA historians are of the opinion that Game 3 was the final nail in Utah’s coffin. The eulogy came in Game 6 courtesy of a jumper by Jordan over Bryon Russell and the rest, as they say, is history.