Moore: The Legendary 1996 Chicago Bulls Bad Beat You’ve Probably Forgotten
Photo by Ron Modra/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls.
The way “The Last Dance” documentary is presented — which accurately describes the shared feeling that Michael Jordan was invincible — if you bet on the Chicago Bulls between 1991 and 1998 save 1994-95, you would have won every time.
But that’s not reality, at least not in the playoffs. The Bulls went 128-114-4 against the spread (52%) in the regular season between 1996 and 1998. Profitable to such a small degree as to be negligible.
In the playoffs? The Bulls, thanks to exorbitant lines created by public support and push, went 27-31, including 7-12 in 1997. Not great, Bob.
Even more, as I was 14 at the time of the Bulls’ masterpiece 72-10 season, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to lose on the Bulls, even against the spread.
So I decided to look back at the most painful losses in the Bulls’ second three-peat playoff run to find the most crushing moments and how they happened. I present the most painful beat I can imagine involving betting on the 72-win, eventual-NBA-champion 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
1996 Eastern Conference Semis: Knicks vs. Bulls Game 2
Imagine watching the Bulls go 72-10, cover a 13-point playoff spread (!!!) in the first round vs. the Miami Heat, and then face the 47-35 New York Knicks, with five of their top seven players age 30 or older. The Bulls were no spring chickens themselves, but they certainly weren’t facing the Eastern Conference Finalist Knicks from 1994.
Unfortunately, the books had the same perspective, or at least understood the public’s perception thereof. The Bulls ultimately went 1-4 ATS in this five-game series against the Knicks failing to cover in the first four games. They were favored in Games 1 and 2 by 13 points.
In Game 2, the Bulls are up 14 with 4:09 to go. Jordan catches the Knicks sending help middle on a post-up and gets to his baseline jumper. 16-point lead, 83-67. Jordan hits a wide-open Steve Kerr for 3 at 3:09 to make it a 17 point lead following Starks free throws. This beauty of a pass makes it 88-69 with 2:39 to go in regulation.
At this point, the Bulls have a 70.5% cover probability -13, via our Action Network app.
Imagine having the Bulls in this game. Up 19 with 2:39 left in a game where the Knicks shot 44% from the field for the game and 22% from 3-point range.
Coming out of that timeout, the Knicks sit Ewing down to concede. Ewing is off the court! But the Bulls have pulled Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman. It’s Tony Kukoc, John Salley, and Ron Harper on the floor for Chicago.
Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy keeps John Starks on the floor and he hits a jumper to make it 17. On the ensuing Bulls possession, Kukoc commits an over-the-back foul going for an offensive rebound. Willie Anderson hits two free throws and just like that, it’s back to 15 with 2:06 left.
It’s important to stress the pace of these games. Today’s NBA operates at an estimated 100.2 possessions per game via Basketball-Reference. The pace in this game was 87.4 That’s glacial.
With less than two minutes to go, this sequence happens, which would have tilted me into the earth’s molten core:
Willie Anderson, man.
Salley splits two free throws and it’s 89-75 with 1:12 to go. The Bulls get a stop and have the ball up 14 with 53.6 to go. OK, run some clock, get one more stop against the Knicks’ garbage time crew and you escape with the 1-point cover, right?
Wrong. Instead … this happened:
I would be throwing objects. Everywhere.
Next up? Here comes our ol’ pal Kukoc. If Jordan and Pippen’s treatment of the Croatian sensation at the 1992 Olympics sparked empathy in you, having bet on this game would have resulted in a resentment that would make you say “Nah, he deserved it.”
But don’t worry, Kukoc is going to make up for all of it. He drives on the next possession and is fouled! He makes them both! It’s back to 91-77 with 22.6 to play! Bulls bettors just need to avoid the backdoor cover from a garbage-time Knicks team.
The Bulls force a miss! Jud Buechler with the rebound!
No call. Out of bounds. Just 1.2 to go. We’re done here. Head to the cashier’s desk!
You, of course, know we’re not done here. But before we finish this, I need to step back a bit.
Gary Grant was an NBA veteran in the truest sense. He had spent seven years with the Los Angeles Clippers, one of the worst franchises in the NBA. In that time, the Clippers made the playoffs just twice. Grant had been drafted at age 23, so in his seventh season when he joined the Knicks in 1995, he was already 30. He signed for $500,000 as a free agent.
The 30-year-old veteran averaged fewer than 13 minutes per game in just 47 games for New York that season. He had one postseason appearance in 1996: Game 2 of this series.
Grant had never shot above 30% from deep before the ’96 season. That season he shot 33% … on 24 attempts. He had made one 3-pointer already in the game. The Knicks, as a team, shot 27% from deep in this series, making just 21-of-78 3s.
With 1.2 seconds left, the 30-year-old, $500,000 man caught the ball.
Final: Bulls 91, Knicks 80
New York covers.
The Knicks scored 80 points in this game, with 14% of their total scoring output coming in the final 2:39 of the game. They finished the game on a 11-3 run after Jordan and Pippen sat down.
Now, you can say laying 13 points in an NBA playoff game is not recommended. But the Bulls were at home, 4-0 straight up since the playoffs began and 3-1 ATS. They had failed to cover the last game as a 13-point favorite, winning by just seven points. But these were the 72-win Bulls, No. 1 in both offensive and defensive rating, again, the greatest team in the history of the NBA by all accounts.
And they had a 19-point lead with 2:39 to go, a 14-point lead with 1.2 to go, and didn’t cover the 13.
That, my friends, is a bad beat.