‘The scariest game we ever faced’: The Bulls talk about their toughest Game 7

AS THE INDIANA PACERS sat at their lockers in Chicago moments before Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals, Larry Bird, in his first year as coach, strode to the center of the room to address them.

Bird was not big on speeches. The Pacers had done their work in practices and film sessions. All that was left was to execute.

Bird scanned the room. “Forget the X’s and O’s,” he said. “Let’s go out there and kick some ass.”

“We looked at each other like, ‘Wow!'” Antonio Davis, then a backup big, recalled.

“We jumped up like, ‘Hell, yeah!'” said Jalen Rose, a backup wing. “That’s Larry Legend!”

The Pacers’ leadership — Bird, Reggie Miller, and Mark Jackson — had projected calm in the 48 hours after Indiana squeaked out Game 6 at home, forcing the Bulls into only their second elimination game in six title runs. (They won the first — Game 7 of the second round against the New York Knicks in 1992 — by 29 points.) Miller and Jackson urged teammates: Don’t prepare any differently just because this is Game 7. We are prepared already.

“That was huge for me to hear,” Antonio Davis said, “because I was scared s—less.”

The teams had split 10 meetings going into Game 7.

“We felt it was our time,” said Dale Davis, Indiana’s starting power forward.

Even so, they had hoped to avoid this precise situation: Game 7 in Chicago. On the first day of training camp, Bird had set a goal, players remembered: get home-court advantage. “He always felt Game 7 on the road would be tough,” said Chris Mullin, Indiana’s starting small forward.

A source of more immediate regret: getting blown out in Game 5, surrendering a chance to clinch at home in Game 6. The Pacers won Games 3 and 4 in Indiana to even the series, snatching Game 4 on Miller’s iconic go-ahead 3 with 0.7 seconds left. They felt momentum.

“I can’t talk about Game 7 without thinking of Game 5,” said Travis Best, a key Indiana reserve. “We were on a high. We felt we were gonna win.”

They were dealt a huge blow when the NBA suspended Rose one game for stepping off the bench during a skirmish in Game 4. Rose had scored 23 points over Games 3 and 4.

“I was 80 feet away from [the scuffle],” Rose lamented. He watched Game 5 alone in a Chicago hotel suite, eating lobster.

Still: Jogging onto the floor for Game 7, the Pacers expected to end Jordan’s reign after losing the conference finals in both 1994 and 1995 — Chicago’s championship gap years.

“We had confidence their run was over,” Jackson said. “We had answers to every question.”

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RIGHT AFTER GAME 6, Jordan strode into the Bulls locker room repeating a mantra, according to Randy Brown: “Just a bump in the road! Bump in the road!”

Bravado aside, the Bulls realized they were in uncharted territory. “I wouldn’t say we were afraid,” said Bill Wennington, Chicago’s backup center, “but we knew they understood us.”

“We were confident,” Brown said, “but we were emotionally beaten down.”

At practice the day before Game 7, Phil Jackson counseled his players to find strength in vulnerability. “He said the important thing is to not fear losing,” said Steve Kerr, a backup guard. “Embrace the idea you could lose. Face that. But before he could get started, Michael just said, ‘F— that, Phil. We’re not losing.’ We put our hands in the middle, said ‘1-2-3, Bulls!’ and went home.”

Jordan had already proclaimed in the media the Bulls would win Game 7. He was the ultimate trump card. “We had MJ, and no else did,” said Jud Buechler, a Bulls reserve.

Kerr drove Buechler to the arena for Game 7; they often commuted together, chatting about all sorts of subjects. They sat in silence for the first 15 minutes. Kerr broke the tension by reassuring Buechler that a loss could not erase their two championships. Buechler protested: “It can’t end like this!”

“I told Stevie there is no way Michael’s last game is a loss in the conference finals,” Buechler said. “There was only one way this could end.”

Minutes before the game, there was calm. “The thought of losing never entered our locker room,” Toni Kukoc said. “It was more quiet that day. Everyone in his own head, rolling over stuff that might happen in the game.”

THE PACERS ROARED to a 20-7 lead playing through Rik Smits and Dale Davis, who bullied Kukoc.

The Pacers normally leaned on Mark Jackson’s back-to-the-basket game, but the Bulls had vaporized it by slotting Scottie Pippen onto him in Game 1. Jackson could not move Pippen backward. Pippen shadowed him full court. Jackson committed 14 turnovers over Games 1 and 2.

“Scottie was beating the s— out of Mark the whole way up the court,” Mullin said. “That was legal then. Game 7 was like a UFC match.”

Davis and Smits started hot, and the Pacers’ defense — fifth overall that season under Dick Harter, Bird’s defensive coordinator — clamped down. Jordan opened 1-of-5, his only make coming on a putback.

Miller started off guarding Jordan because Indiana had no other option. Miller battled, jostling with Jordan in the post. (Miller declined to comment through a Turner spokesman.)

Chicago’s versatility allowed Jordan a less taxing defensive assignment. Ron Harper chased Miller, leaving Jordan on Mullin — who was almost 35, and averaged a career-low 11 points in 1997-98. As the series progressed, Mullin lost minutes to Derrick McKey and Rose.

Phil Jackson called timeout with 7:45 left in the first quarter, and Indiana up 14-5.

“For Phil to call timeout early, it was like, ‘OK, this team really needs my help,'” said Doug Collins, who called the game for NBC with Bob Costas (and was Jackson’s predecessor in Chicago).

The Pacers noticed. “You see them walking off with their heads down and it’s like, ‘Let’s do this!'” Rose said. “Your first thought as a young player is, ‘We are going to blow them out.'”

Chicago scored out of the timeout, but the Pacers answered by posting Dale Davis against Kukoc again. Pippen doubled, and Davis kicked to Jackson for a wide-open 3.

The Bulls were daring Jackson to shoot. He was 7-of-15 from deep over the first six games — not enough volume to worry Chicago. One or two extra Jackson makes could tilt Game 7.

Another Dale Davis bucket and a Jackson free throw made it 20-7. “There was a sense right then that maybe this was really going to be when Chicago’s run ends,” Costas remembered. “These are not present-day games that are 120-116. These are games that are 85-80. Do the math. A 20-7 deficit is harder to overcome.”

Costas recalled cameras flashing whenever Jordan was at the foul line — fans documenting what could have been his last game. “You could feel the tension,” Collins said. “The fans thought the Pacers could win.”

The Pacers sensed anxiety in the Bulls.

“When had they ever felt pressure?” said McKey, who shared Jordan duties on defense despite a quadriceps strain that would require offseason surgery. “We were not surprised to be ahead.”

Bird had preached the importance of taking an early lead, players said. They had done it.

“We weren’t tight,” Best said. “They were.”

Bird and the veterans tempered any excitement. The greatest player ever had 40 minutes to claw back. “We knew the dangers of the opponent,” Mark Jackson said.

The Bulls had expected Indiana to be ready, but the 13-point hole startled them.

“There was shock,” said Scott Burrell, a Bulls backup, “but no panic.”

They knew they had time, and Jordan, and the league’s best defense — and that the Pacers knew those things, too.

“There’s an anticipation that teams are going to come back, and that anticipation — the psychology of it — can bring you back as much as anything else,” said Bill Cartwright, then a Bulls assistant. “[Indiana] should have felt, ‘Why should [Chicago] come back?’ But that’s not how sports is.”

“You know how early leads are,” Mullin said. “The only thing worse than being down 13 is being up 13.”

MILLER AND JORDAN opened the second quarter on the bench. The Pacers counted on winning these minutes; Best had been an X factor, often playing crunch time over Jackson. Miller rested the first 4:38. Indiana scored no field goals in his absence. A hybrid Bulls lineup featuring Dennis Rodman at center and Pippen toggling between forward spots smothered them.

Best pounded the ball as Chicago denied every pass. Rodman stonewalled Antonio Davis post-ups. Between turnovers, Indiana produced end-of-clock prayers.

At the 9:32 mark, Jordan replaced Pippen. Buechler entered with him. Buechler had logged only 9:25 over the first six games, almost all in garbage time. Jackson had approached him at practice the day before and told him to be ready.

Only eight Bulls saw real minutes in Game 6. Jackson in Game 7 upped that to nine, but without compromising Chicago’s speed and shooting. He wanted to stretch the behemoth Pacers out, players said. He chose Buechler over Wennington.

Buechler defended with manic energy, and finished with more rebounds — five — than Smits.

Chicago took the lead, 31-30, when Jordan rebounded his own free throw and flicked in a hook. It was Jordan’s second putback, and the Bulls’ ninth offensive rebound.

Both Antonio Davis and Smits had three fouls. Indiana could not afford to lose Smits’ scoring for long.

“I never got into the flow,” Smits said.

Chicago pushed after Indiana misses; Kerr hit two semi-transition 3s. With Kerr in for Harper, Jordan took Miller and enveloped him. Miller went almost seven minutes without a basket. As Chicago’s lead approached double digits, the crowd smelled blood.

“The thing I will always remember is that it was so loud we couldn’t hear,” Dale Davis said. “We couldn’t communicate. We were just playing. It was that loud.”

The Bulls went up 46-39 with 54 seconds left on two more second-chance baskets.

The first was one of those fluky moments that feels more important in retrospect. With 1:47 left, Pippen missed a 3. The rebound bounced around before landing in Jackson’s hands on the edge of the paint. Jackson was facing away from half court. He spun around. He had no idea he was about to spin into Buechler. Buechler was there only because he had darted inside to join the rebound scrum.

As Jackson turned, his left shoulder smacked into Buechler’s midsection. Jackson lost his balance, and the ball. Worse yet: It squirted to Rodman, standing at the foul line with no one in front him. Rodman laid it in uncontested.

Was it luck? Did Buechler’s energy create luck? “Sometimes it comes down to the proper bounce,” Jackson said.

With the Pacers teetering, Miller rescued them. He hit back-to-back 3s in the final 40 seconds to pull Indiana to within 46-45. On the first, Miller faced up Burrell, swung the ball in front of him, appeared to hit Burrell’s face, and drained an easy 3 as Burrell recoiled.

“He threw an elbow,” Burrell said. “Anyone else, and [the referees] call it.”

The Pacers counted on Miller’s momentum-swinging mini-runs.

“There were so many moments that season when we’d be down 8 or 10, and I’d look at Reggie, and he’d have this look on his face, like, ‘Come on, that’s just a couple of buckets,'” Antonio Davis said. “I hung my hat on that. I’d just look at Reggie. He was our Michael Jordan.”

After Miller’s second 3, Jordan rushed up court and found Burrell for a layup at the buzzer: 48-45, Bulls.

“That layup sticks in my head,” Costas said. “It sent the Bulls into the locker room on a little uptick.”

The Pacers felt good. In the halftime locker room, Mark Jackson delivered a galvanizing message, teammates said: “We’re going to win the game.”

PHIL JACKSON HAD gone all-in on Kukoc as a starting stretch power forward against Indiana, which meant reimagining Rodman as a heavy-minutes backup.

Between Games 6 and 7, Jackson indicated he might yank Kukoc early if the Davises trampled him. Dale Davis feasted in the first quarter, but Jackson stuck with Kukoc.

The payoff came now. Kukoc hit five straight jumpers, including three triples, as the Bulls opened their largest lead at 69-61 with 2:17 left in the quarter. It was perhaps Kukoc’s most consequential stretch as a Bull.

“Those Kukoc shots felt pivotal as they happened,” Best said.

“He had our big men stretched out,” McKey added.

Indiana still could not penetrate Chicago’s defense. Pippen was at his most disruptive. He pressured Jackson until Jackson picked up his dribble, and then zipped backward to threaten entry passes to Smits. Every entry pass was an adventure. Some never happened at all.

Pippen shaded Jackson away from Miller’s pet catch-and-shoot spots. When Jackson did find Miller, Pippen abandoned Jackson and slid into Miller’s line of sight.

“We were a better defensive team than offensive team,” Cartwright said.

Indiana’s coaches discussed having Dale Davis set blind screens on Pippen around half court, to provide Jackson breathing room.

“I don’t believe anyone in history could have played the type of defense on me that Scottie Pippen did,” Jackson said. “They don’t win if he doesn’t apply that pressure. It was genius of Phil to put him on me.”

“That matchup won us the series,” Brown said.

The Pacers went 6-of-11 from the line in the third; Dale Davis, who shot 46.5% that season, was 2-of-6. The Pacers were 17-of-28 going into the fourth quarter. Davis finished 3-of-10.

“You kick yourself,” he said, “but there’s nothing to do now.”

(The Bulls went just 24-of-41 themselves.)

Down eight, Indiana could not fall further behind.

“You definitely say to yourself, ‘S—, we’re in trouble,'” Mullin said. “But there was no panic. It was just get a basket and a stop, basket and stop.”

A Best layup and two Dale Davis free throws (in four attempts) brought the Pacers to within 69-65 as the quarter closed. Jordan would open the fourth on the bench. “We had to take advantage,” Best said.

ROSE WENT ON a personal 4-0 run to tie the score. Indiana took the lead, 72-69, on a Smits and-1.

Chicago’s offense disintegrated without Jordan. When he returned, he missed three straight shots — bringing his streak of misses to six.

On that sixth miss, Longley scooted around Smits and tipped the rebound toward Jordan, who caught the ball and laid it in with 7:46 left — Chicago’s first points in about 6:30 — to pull the Bulls to within 72-71.

“You can’t give that team second chances,” Best said.

Smits answered with another and-1. As Smits strode to the line, Bird replaced Rose with McKey — defense for offense. “I was pissed,” Rose said. He never reentered.

Indiana led 77-74 with 6:40 left when it happened — the sequence many Indiana players and staff can close their eyes and describe in excruciating detail 22 years later. McKey stripped Jordan on a drive. The ball went to the floor. Smits and Jordan grabbed it; referees whistled a jump ball in front of Indiana’s bench.

Smits is 7-foot-4 — 10 inches taller than Jordan. Win the tip, and the Pacers would have a chance to go up by five or six.

But Smits had been nursing sore feet for years. He didn’t have much vertical leap left. “I knew we were not about to win that tip,” said Antonio Davis, who lined up behind Smits.

As the players arranged themselves, the Pacers were unnerved. Smits turned to the bench, befuddled about something. McKey, to Smits’ right, pointed toward the sideline. Mark Jackson shot off the bench, shouting something he could not recall. Coaches discussed an impromptu timeout.

The NBC cameras zoomed in on Antonio Davis. He furrowed his brow. A split second before the toss, Davis turned toward the Pacers bench — seeking instruction on where to stand, he said. Too late.

Jordan appeared to jump forward slightly, his left arm colliding with Smits’ right. Smits touched the ball first, but could not direct it. It ricocheted to Pippen.

The Bulls reset, and Jordan missed a leaner. Longley and Smits swatted at the rebound. Once again, the ball caromed to Pippen.

It was chaos. Playing on instinct, Best scrambled toward Jordan on the left wing. Jordan wasn’t his man, but he was Michael Jordan, and all the rules were out the window. When Best arrived, he found McKey next to him. He knew what that meant.

“Oh no, somebody’s open,” Best thought to himself. “And it had to be Kerr or Kukoc.”

It was Kerr. Pippen found him. Kerr hit a 3, tying the score.

“That was the turning point,” said Fred Hoiberg, who watched in horror from Indiana’s bench. “When Kerr hit that shot, the roof blew off the place.”

Kerr said he and Miller discuss that play often. “That was probably the most open look I got the whole series,” Kerr said.

Smits did not remember the jump ball. “We lost,” Smits said, “and I let everything go.”

IT WAS STILL tied with 5:19 left when Best pushed off Kerr for an offensive foul. Bird pulled him for Jackson.

“That play is a nightmare for me, still,” Best said. “I never got [another] opportunity. And for Mark to get thrown back in — that was tough on him.”

Chicago went to its finishing move: Jordan-Longley pick-and-rolls, targeting Smits. Smits lunged at Jordan, but Jordan blew by him and beelined for the basket. Once, he dunked. Mostly, he drew fouls. Jordan went 5-of-7 at the line in the fourth quarter.

Phil Jackson subbed Harper for Kerr, and Rodman for Kukoc at dead balls preceding Indiana possessions. The Bulls strangled Indiana’s offense one last time. Miller did not attempt a shot in the fourth quarter until he flung a corner 3 with 2:15 left as the shot clock expired. Rodman blocked it. He did not take another shot.

With 1:59 left, Pippen hit a jump hook over Antonio Davis on a late switch — drawing Davis’ sixth foul and putting Chicago up 87-83.

Pippen missed the free throw. Smits was the low man on the left edge of the paint; Jordan was behind him. Jordan trucked Smits underneath the basket, leapt between Smits and Dale Davis, and snared the rebound — Chicago’s 21st offensive board.

It was one of the unheralded great clutch plays of Jordan’s career — certainly among his most important rebounds. The Bulls didn’t score on the subsequent possession, but they killed 24 seconds.

They finished with 22 offensive rebounds. Indiana had four. Jordan alone had four putbacks.

“They killed us on the boards,” Smits said. “[With that rebounding margin] they should really have kicked our butts.”

On Indiana’s next possession, Harper intercepted Jackson’s entry pass to Smits. Indiana never scored again.

THERE WAS NOT much celebrating in Chicago’s locker room. The Bulls were exhausted, relieved, impressed with the Pacers and looking forward to the Finals against the Utah Jazz.

“That was the scariest game we ever faced,” Kerr said.

In the visiting locker room, several members of the team wept. Jackson walked stall to stall, reminding teammates how far the Pacers had come, players remembered. “We were proud,” Jackson said. “And almost pleased. Almost like you might imagine Joe Frazier feeling as they announced Muhammad Ali the winner. Until the buzzer went off, we never thought we were going to lose.”

The Pacers had gotten close enough to think about the championship.

“We felt pretty good about playing Utah,” McKey said.

“You take it one game at a game, but that’s always in the back of your mind,” Dale Davis said. “If we had settled down after [going up 20-7], I feel we probably would have got that ring.”

Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ GM, walked in to congratulate the Pacers, but no one wanted that conversation. A few staffers retreated into a private office until Krause left.

Bird cleared the locker room of everyone but players, coaches, and staff. He stood to address them again. He told the players he was proud of them, and sad their journey was over. His voice wavered just a little, players recalled. Few of them had ever seen him emotional. (Bird did not respond to requests for comment.)

Rose was still angry about Bird removing him from the game. He showered and rushed out, hoping to stew alone on the team bus. When he boarded, Rose said, one person was already inside, alone in the front row: Bird. Rose started to walk by. Bird stopped him. He confided to Rose he was second-guessing his decision to take Rose out. Rose’s anger faded. “I love Larry,” he said.

The rest of the team trudged on in silence, digesting the finality of it.

“Nobody thought we’d take them to Game 7, or have a chance to win,” McKey said. “Nobody but us.”

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