By Any Means Necessary (Game 7 1998 ECF, Bulls-Pacers) “You don’t learn about a great team or great players when they’re winning; you learn about them when they’re clawing to remain on top” – Bill Simmons. In the spring of 1998 the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers faced off in a gruelling 7 game series which ended up being one the most tightly contested Conference Finals of the 90’s. For the first time in their careers Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller faced off against each other in the playoffs, and for only the third time in his career Jordan was pushed to the limit in a 7 game series. The Bulls were on their “Last Dance” campaign in 1997-98 and behind closed doors the team was in disarray. The relationship between head coach Phil Jackson and General manager Jerry Krause had reached its tipping point. Krause had no plans of re-signing Jackson after the season and Jackson had no intentions of returning. Jordan had already made it clear that he would retire if Phil wasn’t the man in charge. Scottie Pippen voiced trade demands throughout the season after Krause tried to trade him during the 1997 draft. Pippen had also grown frustrated with Krause who showed no intentions of re-signing Pippen who was in the final season of a cheap contract which paid him $2.8 million dollars in 97-98. And finally Dennis Rodman was making headlines off the court for all the wrong reasons. All the drama and discord between the players/coaches and front office turned into turmoil on the basketball court. Pippen missed the first 35 games of the season with a foot injury and the Bulls limped out of the gate to a 12-9 record. However they slowly began to turn it around, winning 11 of 12 and running their record to 26-12 by the time Pippen returned to action in mid-January. The Bulls rolled into the All-Star break with a 34-15 record and continued with the hot streak in the second half of the season, winning 25 of 27 games and finishing tied for the best record in the league at 62-20. Jordan would be crowned with his 5th (and final) league MVP and led the league in scoring with 28.7 points per game. The Pacers underwent a massive turnaround in 1997-98 under first year head coach Larry Bird. Indiana won 19 more games compared to the previous season and finished with the second best record in the East at 58-24, splitting the season series with Chicago, with each team winning a game at home and on the road. Bird was awarded Coach of the Year honors. Interestingly, the Pacers were trying to be the first team from the ABA to make the Finals since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. In the playoffs, both teams cruised through the first two rounds. The Bulls swept the New Jersey Nets in the first round and disposed of the Charlotte Hornets in 5 games. Indiana beat Cleveland and New York to move onto the Eastern Conference Finals – dropping a game in each series. Series Recap In Game 1, the Bulls forced 25 turnovers on their way to an 85-78 win despite poor shooting from Jordan, Pippen and Toni Kukoc (combined 14/48). The momentum carried over into game 2 as Jordan scored 41 points and Chicago looked on their way to cruising into the Finals, taking a 2-0 series lead. Back in Indiana for game 3, a limping Reggie Miller scored 13 of his 28 points in the final 4 and half minutes as the Pacers survived a late rally by Chicago to climb back into the series with a 107-105 win. Game 4 is famously remembered for a barrage of Indiana 3 pointers which culminated with Miller’s long three pointer to give Indiana the lead with 0.7 seconds left. Jordan’s double-clutch 3 pointer painfully spun out at the buzzer as Indiana held on for a 96-94 win, tying the series up at 2 games each. Game 5 was the only blowout of the series. Indiana struggling offensively, shooting 34% from the floor, including a 14 minute stretch in the first half where they failed to make a field goal. Jordan scored 29, Pippen scored 20 and Kukoc added 19 as the Bulls cruised to a 106-87 victory. The Pacers would forced a game 7 with a 92-89 win back in Indiana despite Miller scoring only 8 points. So the scene was set for a game 7 after six games which gave you everything you could have asked for: Pippen imposing nightmares on Mark Jackson, Miller doing his best impression of a kid on Christmas morning, Soul-destroying dunks, one player taking on the entire opponent's bench in a staring contest and finally a guarantee from the greatest player of all time which was delivered with such brilliance that you’re unsure whether it’s the most unconvincing guarantee of all time or whether it’s the most confident, badass “we will win this game” guarantee of all time.
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