Sunday, June 3, 2012

Three Points To Prove: Jordan's '92 Finals Opener, 20 Years Later

CLEVELAND - Michael Jordan first crafted his astounding hoops reputation from his breathtaking ability to expertly penetrate defenses and finish spectacularly at the rim. It's what earned him the nickname "Air Jordan," since his forays to the basket were of the high altitude variety. But on a single evening in the final weeks of spring in 1992, the then 29-year old basketball demigod dramatically added another chapter to his iconography.

Long distance shooting.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of Game One of the 1992 NBA Finals, the indelible game that showcased Jordan at his brazen and coolly electrifying best. MJ drilled six consecutive three-point baskets in a 9:22 span of the first half which ended with the MVP having scored 35 mind-boggling points. When taken at face value, the game, a match-up between the Chicago Bulls and Portland Trailblazers, was incredible enough as it were. But when context is added to the discussion, it immediately becomes clear that Jordan authored a singularly historic moment in the annals of basketball history that proved definitively his unassailability as a basketball mind-game master.

Going into the ballyhooed series, the media relentlessly played up the aerial match-up between MJ and his Western conference counterpart, Portland's Clyde Drexler. During the 1991-92 NBA regular season, Drexler's brilliance led some in the media to label him as the possible league MVP. He certainly enjoyed a spectacular season as he averaged 25.0 points per game along with 6.6 rpg and 6.7 apg. He was a high-scoring, high-flying shooting guard with highlight reel ability and outstanding defensive prowess. Because all of these attributes defined Chicago's Jordan as well, the match-up was seen as an eye-popping showdown between the two best all-around players in the game.

It had become a popular opinion in some NBA circles to label Drexler as "the best player outside of Chicago." There was also the famous opinion that Jordan was better at everything than Drexler, except three point shooting. For the hyper-competitive Jordan, this was seen as a subtle indictment of his perimeter shooting ability. Statistical evidence proved that neither player was a great three-point shooter; Drexler shot about 34% from the arc that season and Jordan stood at a meager 27%. Perception may have been inspired by the huge difference in makes that Drexler had over Jordan. The Portland star made 87 more threes than MJ that season, largely because he shot 4.4 per game to Jordan's 1.3.

"[Drexler's] a better three-point shooter than I choose to be," said a calculating and quietly seething Jordan, prior to the series opener. Since the Bulls were the defending NBA champions, and the prohibitive favorites to repeat in this series (after a dominant 67-15 season), and Jordan was the recently crowned league MVP for the second consecutive season, Chicago and its megastar were loaded with swagger and devoid of humility.

Anyone that knew what Jordan's offense game entailed immediately noticed that the man was clearly on a mission as the first quarter of Game One got underway. He uncharacteristically spotted up behind the three-point line as either Scottie Pippen or John Paxson brought the ball upcourt. He fired off two attempts from long range in the first few minutes and missed them both. Portland though, ran up a 15-5 lead and seemed poised to extend it further.

Until Jordan laid down his rules.

Soon, MJ's masterful offense was firing on all cylinders. Pull up mid-range j's and post up fadeaways were all falling for the 6-time NBA scoring champion when he suddenly rose up from the arc and nailed his first trey in three attempts. This was at a point in his career where he was still young, energetic and athletic enough to physically overpower other teams and bend them to his will psychologically. As Jordan's offense went into overdrive, so did the Bulls' trademark suffocating defense. Soon, the Blazers had lost all poise and focus and ended the first half staring at a 15-point deficit. Jordan had rang up a transcendent half, nailing 14 of his 21 attempts for his silky smooth 35 points. The second half was a mere formality, but featured two jaw dropping plays from the legendary MJ. He mostly dished off to teammates in that half and wound up with a 39 point, 11 assist slice of excellence to add to his overflowing basketball resume. The Bulls won in a rout, 122-89 and Drexler never looked as inferior to MJ as he did on this night. He wound up with a pedestrian 16 points on 5 of 14 shooting.

By time the 1992 finals ended 11 days later in a 4-2 series victory and a 2nd straight Bulls championship, MJ had proven without any doubt the level of superiority he possessed over Clyde the Glide. He would later reveal that he wanted people to understand the difference between him and Drexler and he felt that he accomplished it in that series. "Coming into this series, I thought [Jordan] had 2,000 moves," said Drexler. "I was wrong. He has 3,000."

For Jordan, his transcendence was never questioned again.

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