In NBA playoff history, there are moments that are deemed as being iconic.
The greats of the game are revered for their playoff exploits, where one game or one performance can be branded in our minds for the rest of our lives; so much so that we have vivid memories of where we were when we saw these amazing moments. As kids we mimicked these moments at the playground, our driveways and in our backyards, trying to emulate the performances of the hardwood legends.
23 (purely coincidence) years ago today, the Chicago Bulls faced off against the Portland Trailblazers in game one of the 1992 NBA Finals. The series had quite a few story lines: the Bulls were aiming to win their second title in as many seasons. Bulls guard Michael Jordan had finally shook off the “He can’t win” label that dogged him during his career up until that point. The Blazers had passed him over in the 1984 NBA Draft, infamously drafting Sam Bowie because they already had a shooting guard in Clyde Drexler. Also, during that ’92 season, Jordan picked up his third of six 6 MVP awards; his NBA Finals opponent, Clyde Drexler, finished second.
The Blazers were back in the finals after making it in 1990. They lost to the Lakers in six games in the previous season. Like any team who previously played and lost in the NBA Finals, they wanted to make it back to finish the job. Little did they know that they would become a footnote in another chapter in the career of one the greatest basketball players of all time.
Even though the Bulls defeated Portland 122-89 in Game 1, most people remember what he did after hitting his sixth three pointers in the first half.
Jordan went on to hit six first-half three pointers in that game. After the sixth, he memorably turned and shrugged. That later became known as the “Jordan Shrug.”According to numerous media accounts, Jordan looked in the direction of press row, shrugged his shoulders and extended his hands as if to indicate, "What can I say?" He tied a Finals record for three pointers in a game and set a Finals record with 35 first-half points. He finish with a game-high 39 points.
Then Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dan Bickley gave an account of what he saw that night at the Chicago Stadium:
They felt like free throws, looked like free throws and dropped like free throws.
And they were so uncontested, a referee should’ve handed him the ball.
Even Jordan was amazed at what he did.
“No one expected it,” Jordan told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I didn’t know what was happening, but I kept shooting `em.” He went on to say:
“I really didn’t concentrate on shooting three’s this year. I really wasn’t looking to shoot three’s (tonight), but that’s the shot they gave me. I felt real comfortable and started firing.
“The first one felt so good, I had to take more. I don’t exactly know how to explain it.”
In typical Jordan fashion, he wanted to send a message to those whom he believed dissed him. A message to the doubters.
Sam Smith, who writes about the team for Bulls.com, was on the Bulls’ beat at the time. Here are some of his thoughts he wrote on the team's website on Jordan’s signature game:
Meanwhile, Jordan’s shooting was off to start, missing a couple of threes, and Drexler got off on one of those fast breaks and had a poster dunk over Jordan. You figure by this time knowing Jordan, he had to be fuming with Portland up early 15-7.
Jordan, who generally rested to start the second and fourth quarters, came back into the game with the Bulls leading 45-44 midway through the second, and the show began.
Jordan came in and posted up Drexler for a score to send the first message and then started knocking down those threes in what even stunned him as he would offer that shrug to Magic Johnson doing commentary courtside. By halftime, it was 35-8 for Jordan over Drexler and 66-51 Bulls. Drexler was now shooting air balls and the Trail Blazers were lost. Jordan’s 35 first half points broke a Finals record held by Elgin Baylor, and the Bulls basically ended it to open the second half with a big run. Not helping their national reputation, the Trail Blazers began launching off balanced threes, and the old Stadium began to shake when Jordan slam dunked an inbound lob pass for a 30 point lead with about five minutes left in the third. Chicago would lead 104-68 heading into the fourth after outscoring Portland 38-17 in the third.
Portland was caught off guard by Jordan’s unlikely three points shooting stroke. Blazers guard Terry Porter told reporters as much after game one.
“Most of the time I don’t mind him shooting three-pointers, but tonight it seemed like they were all going in,” Porter told reporters. “You’re going to double-team him in three-point land? You can’t stretch your defense out that much.”
One could say that Jordan had gotten into the heads of the Trailblazers since they had no answer for something that was completely unanticipated. You might remember from the ESPN 30 for 30 “Bad Boys” documentary when Pistons center Bill Laimbeer remarked how easy it was to get under the skin of many of the Blazers’ players during the 1990 NBA Finals. The Pistons only needed five games to dispatch the Blazers.
Two things made Jordan’s night remarkable. One, like Porter said, Jordan wasn’t known for his three point shooting. After all, he only shot 27 percent from three point range during the season and only shot 31 percent during the playoffs. Two, Jordan was completely unaware that he tied a record set by Lakers guard Michael Cooper and Pistons center/hated rival Bill Laimbeer. When Jordan found out, he remarked that he would have kept shooting if he had known Laimbeer was one of the record holders.
Michael Jordan has a litany of moments that stick out in minds of basketball fans worldwide. As a Chicagoan, I got to see many of them. Some point to the Slam Dunk contest in 1988, the "Flu" game, the game-winning jumpshot over Craig Ehlo or the time when he pushed aside Byron Russell to hit the game winning shot against the Utah Jazz. For me, the “shrug” game is a microcosm of his career.
Like most who doubted Jordan early on in his career, Portland doubted Jordan by figuring that his outside shooting was a weakness in his game. But as always seemed to be the case, Jordan’s legendary competitive nature wouldn’t allow him to lose. That game was a validation to everyone who loved watching him play the game.
We knew we were watching greatness, something that may never come along again.
That, and a simple shrug, made the moment something savor and cherish.