Doc Rivers Spills on How to Beat Jordan’s Bulls, 1998

[In this article from January 1998, Doc Rivers strategizes on how to beat Jordan’s Bulls. Rivers had recently wrapped up his pro playing career, and his second career as an NBA coach would soon begin in Orlando. This article appeared in the magazine Inside Sports. With that as prelude, here’s Doc.]

It’s the NBA in the ‘90s: Whenever Michael Jordan plays a full season of basketball, the Chicago Bulls win a ring. And they do it with all the certainty of a freight train: the Bulls have faced elimination only once in the 20 playoff series leading to their five titles. 

Obviously, the Bulls dynasty must someday come to an end. In fact, Bulls management itself—in its eagerness to rebuild—may dismantle the team. If that’s the case, this season will be the last to beat Jordan’s Bulls. Here’s how you do it. 

Convince yourself it can be done. Since Jordan un-retired, the Bulls have gone 189-39. In that span, every NBA team has felt the Bulls’ wrath at least three times—the Miami Heat alone have lost 13 times—the no team has better than a .333 record. What does this mean? It means opponents don’t have the experience of actually being better than the Bulls, so they have to convince themselves they are. 

The Utah Jazz did this last season in the NBA Finals. After four games, the series was tied at 2-2, and the Jazz had the momentum. Scottie Pippen understood why. “I’ve never seen them with any fear in their eyes,” he said after Game 4.

It’s not hard for Shaquille O’Neal or Karl Malone to face their Bulls counterparts with confidence—but what about a shooting guard or small forward who knows Jordan and Pippen are his superiors? He must walk onto the court, look Jordan or Pippen in the eye, and say to himself, “Not tonight. Either I rise to your level or bring you down to mine.” And he must believe it.

The coach’s job is to sell that. Heat coach Pat Riley has a mantra: “We must expect to win.” Riley is a hell of a salesman—he could sell Yugos in Beverly Hills—and that’s one reason why his New York Knicks teams were an almost respectable 16-20 against the Bulls during his tenure. “You have to find a way to break through whatever mental barrier there is about whether or not you deserve to be a champion,” he told the Heat before this season. “That’s the difference between [the Heat] and Chicago.”

The bottom line? If this first step isn’t taken, everything else in this article is meaningless. 

Don’t get caught up in the psychological games. Mental preparation is vital, but don’t get too cute. The Bulls don’t receive messages—they send them. Before Game 4 of the Bulls-Heat playoff series last season, Jordan held out his hand to Alonzo Mourning and Zo ignored him. That was pure Riley , his way of telling his troops, “Forget them. Forget shaking hands. Attack!” It worked for a while, as the Heat won that game 87-80. The next game, however, Mourning held out his hand to Jordan—and Michael rebuffed him. Jordan won the war of wills, and the Bulls won the game and conference championship. 

Jordan is a ruthless competitor and isn’t above some psychological gamesmanship, but he’s not the shark Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy claims. Last season, Van Gundy said MJ lures opponents into friendships to take the edge off their competitiveness. The fact is, Jordan doesn’t seek out guys that way. But almost everyone wants his acceptance as a player—Gary Payton is a rare exception—and Michael doesn’t necessarily discourage that. If he sees you want to befriend him, if you want to play around with him and giggle with him, that’s fine. Then he’s going to kick your ass. 

Play physical basketball. The Heat (3-6) and the Knicks (3-7) have the best regular-season records against the Bulls since Jordan’s return. Why? Because, thanks to Riley’s influence, those two teams epitomize physical, muscular basketball—the best way to slow down the Bulls’ triangle offense. The triangle is based on fluidity and motion, and a defense that lets Chicago run its patterns and make its cuts unmolested get sliced up. The Knicks and Heat, on the other hand, put their bodies on the Bulls as Michael and company try to make their cuts and set their picks. As Van Gundy says, “You have to make them feel you.”

Bulls coach Phil Jackson knows this as well as anyone, so he constantly complains to the officials about physical play and even lobbies in the newspapers for tighter officiating. When an opponent disrupts things physically, the triangle offense creates fewer open shots, and the Bulls’ complementary players have a hard time pulling their weight. In eight regular-season games against the Heat and Knicks last season. Jordan scored in the 30s four times and the 50s twice, but the rest of the team struggled—and the Bulls averaged 96 points in those games, 7.1 below their season average.

Never let up on Jordan. You must play defense on Jordan from the moment the ball in inbounded. If he’s walking up the court, fight him for every step he takes. 

In the post, deny him the ball. Fight him for position; don’t wait until he has it 12 feet from the basket to apply a body. Jordan is the second-best post-up player in the NBA (only Hakeem Olajuwon is better), so you have to give him different looks and make him think. If you play on his hip all night, he’ll shoot that fadeaway jumper every time. You’ve got to front him or play three quarters defense on him to make the entry pass more difficult—even if this pass is successful, Jordan still has to turn and face your inside defenders, which he doesn’t relish the way he used to. The more Jordan has to drive, the better off you are. Payton, who’s quick and as strong as an ox, plays Michael especially tough in the paint. 

Sounds difficult, right? It is, especially since, for those 42 minutes, you have to go it alone. Double-teaming Jordan during that time is a huge risk because he’s such a good passer and ball-handler. And in addition to playmakers like Jordan, Pippen, and Toni Kukoc, the Bulls are stocked with guys like Steve Kerr and Bill Wennington, who aren’t great at creating their own shot but are deadly spot-up shooters when left open. Double-team Jordan, and these guys will score points. 

However, all this goes out the window during the last six minutes. That’s when you must double-team Jordan, when you must make someone else—a weaker link in the chain—take the big shots. If I’m Jerry Sloan, I’m fine with the shot Kerr took to ice the championship in last year’s Finals. I’d rather be beaten by a guy who’s not used to shooting game-winners than by someone who makes his living that way. 

Once you decide on this approach—42 minutes of relentless single coverage, six minutes of double-teams—you have to commit to it. Last January, the Knicks gave Jordan too many easy shots early and rarely double-teamed him at the end. The rest of the Bulls scored all of 37 points, but a fresh Jordan tallied 51 in an 88-87 win.  

Don’t let the complementary players beat you. If you’ve committed to single-teaming Jordan for the first 42 minutes, your other defenders must make the most of this opportunity. The more the rest of the team is stymied, the better Jordan and Pippen have to be. This narrows the Bulls’ options, opens up the slim chance that Jordan will tire, and makes the complementary players less prepared to step up when you double-team Jordan in crunch time. 

Play helter-skelter defense. As a team, the Bulls want to jog the ball up the court and get into the triangle offense unmolested. So don’t let them. 

The Toronto Raptors throw an all-out, 48-minute trapping defense at the Bulls, with surprisingly good results. The Raptors don’t trap to exploit great individual talent or size, but to capitalize on their main strengths of quickness and stamina—and they’ve hung a defeat on the Bulls each of the past two years, and last season held Jordan to 30 points or less in all four games. (Twice he wasn’t even the leading scorer.) When you force Pippen—who has a smaller arsenal of shots and a 69 percent free throw percentage compared to Jordan’s 84 percent—to carry the Bulls offensively, you increase your chances of winning. 

The Raptors trap the Bulls in the backcourt with Stoudamire and Doug Christie, which can work as long as you keep Jordan and Pippen in front of you. This takes the ball out of Jordan’s and Pippen’s hands and gives it to the likes of Ron Harper, Luc Longley, or even Dennis Rodman—guys who aren’t going to beat you in the open court. More likely, they’ll slow the ball down and wait for the offense to assemble, wasting precious time. 

Toronto traps the Bulls in the corners, as well, which comes with no guarantees since Jordan and Pippen are such good passers. But the goal is not to force the turnover every time. The goal is to disrupt the Bulls’ rhythm, to force non-playmakers to make plays, and to wear down one of the oldest teams in the league. 

Attack on offense. “Our defense is just fine, but we must get easy buckets against the Bulls,” Riley tells his teams. “We must find ways of scoring in the open court.” In last year’s conference semifinals, he was right on both counts. The Heat smothered and bullied the Bulls into .384 shooting and 87.4 points per game, but they also failed to get those easy buckets. They walked the ball up into the halfcourt offense and got suffocated, shooting .384 and scoring only 78.6 points per game. 

The Heat played right into the Bulls’ strengths. Jordan, Pippen, and Harper are like clones: 6-feet-6 or 6-feet-7, 215 pounds, long arms, quick hands and feet, with supernatural awareness of passing lanes. You can’t beat them consistently in a halfcourt set—you need to hurry the ball upcourt fast, throw it over the heads of their best athletes to create two-on-one, three-on-two, four-on-three situations against Longley, Rodman, or Kukoc. 

Against the Bulls, many teams fall into the trap of playing not to score but to avoid turnovers. That’s suicide. You must take some risks. Recall the play that was most instrumental in the Jazz’s tying the Bulls 2-2 in last year’s Finals. In Game 4, with Utah trailing by one with less than a minute to go and the Bulls’ pressure defense at full throttle, John Stockton tracked down a rebound and shocked the Bulls by unleashing a daring 50-foot pass to the streaking Malone. You could see the look of disbelief on Jordan’s face as the ball floated over his fingertips into Malone’s hands. Malone’s layup put the Jazz up for good. Against the Bulls, nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

Rebound. There’s no escaping board work. How did the Bulls dominate the league last year? For starters, they had the third-best field goal percentage and the third-highest total of offensive rebounds. That’s rare—high offensive rebound stats usually stem from lots of missed shots. The Bulls also had the sixth-best defense and the fourth-best defensive rebounding total. Be it resolved: You must rebound, if you’re going to get enough shots to win. 

In last year’s Finals, the Jazz split the rebounding battle with the Bulls, outrebounding them in three of the six games. It’s one reason why the Bulls needed clutch last-second shots in three games to win. 

Stay calm and stick to your game plan. A fourth-quarter lead against the Bulls doesn’t guarantee a victory. Last season, they still came out a winner 47 percent of the time when they trailed at the end of three quarters. By contrast, the Knicks and Heat prevailed 38 percent of the time, the Jazz 33 percent. 

You don’t have to do something special in the fourth quarter—you simply have to do what you did the first three. Last December, the visiting Los Angeles Lakers pasted the Bulls for three quarters and led by 18 going into the fourth. L.A. built that lead by racing the ball upcourt, passing the ball over defenders and dribbling aggressively through them; in the halfcourt, the Lakers spaced their offense to take away double-teams and open up passing lanes, and hit cutters for back-door dunks.

This lasted for three quarters. But in the fourth, the Lakers—wide-eyed and giddy at their unexpected success—settled into a halfcourt game and quit gambling, trying to protect their lead. The calm and confident Bulls clamped on the pressure, Shaq rarely saw the ball, and regulation ended with the game tied at 116. The Bulls won going away in overtime, 129-123.

Don’t overreact to a spectacular play. If there’s one thing that can knock a team off its equilibrium, it’s that great play the Bulls produce seemingly at will: Jordan drilling a shot out of a double-team, Kerr or Kukoc nailing a three at the buzzer, Pippen stealing the ball for an easy dunk. When made by a team with the Bulls’ aura, such plays seem greater than they are—but the fact is, two points are two points, no matter how their scored. 

I learned this lesson with the Hawks in a game against Magic Johnsons “Showtime” Lakers. L.A.’s first eight baskets came on spectacular plays. Steals, dunks, behind-the-back passes; the Forum was going berserk. Mike Fratello called a timeout, and I slumped down on the bench, let out a sigh of disgust, and looked up at the scoreboard—and we were only behind by one! It was no time to panic. 

Like Magic’s Lakers, Michael’s Bulls can be beaten. It starts with a confidence that accompanies you to the game and doesn’t waver in the face of a great play or threatened comeback. It’s keyed by a physical defense (like the Heat’s in the conference semifinals), a willingness to trap (like the Raptors do, out of necessity), and a risk-taking offense (like the Lakers played for three quarters last December).

When one team can play like three, the Bulls will be beaten.

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