Compare the two responses from Sunday night’s episodes of ESPN’s “The Last Dance.”
The first was from former NBA commissioner David Stern, who was asked whether Michael Jordan’s first retirement was actually a secret suspension for his gambling vice.
Stern didn’t show a hint of emotion, calmly dismissing the claim as to assure the audience that such a charge was ridiculous.
The second came from Jordan when viewing an interview with former Sonics guard Gary Payton, who was saying his defense in Games 4-6 “took a toll on Mike” in the 1996 NBA Finals.
Jordan responded with an over-the-top laugh, to the point that it looked like he was compensating for his insecurity.
“I had no problem with The Glove,” said Jordan, referring to Payton’s nickname.
I realize Stern and MJ were discussing different topics, but the reason I bring them up is because you can often deduce the veracity of a claim by one’s body language. And in those aforementioned moments, Stern showed confidence, and Jordan did not.
The reason is simple: Jordan definitely had a problem with The Glove.
I’m not going to say the 72-win Bulls — considered by many to be the greatest NBA team ever — would have lost to Seattle had Payton guarded Jordan in the first three games of the series. Michael was the ultimate adapter who spent his career torching teams that came up with every conceivable plan to try to stop him.
But Jordan’s blatant dismissal of Payton’s performance against him is unfair. The Glove deserves recognition as having the greatest defensive stretch ever against His Airness.
Basketball-reference.com keeps game logs of everyone who played in the NBA. These logs include just about every stat you could ask for in a given game.
At the end of the stat line is something called Game Score, which takes all the numbers in a particular contest and essentially gives out a number grade.
For example, when Jordan had 56 points on 20 of 30 shooting vs. the Heat the 1992 playoffs, he got a game score of 49.8. When he had 31 points on 14 of 28 shooting vs. the Suns in the 1993 Finals, he had a game score of 25.9.
Never has he had back-to-back game scores of 16 or below — except against the Sonics, when it happened three times in a row.
Payton might have been the most physical point guard to have played. It wasn’t just his on-ball defense that flustered MJ, it was the fact it took about a day off Jordan’s life just to get the ball in the first place.
The way Payton would body Jordan up or deny him in the post was unlike any other defender in the league. It’s perfectly acceptable to wonder if the Sonics might have won had Payton been on Jordan the whole time.
After averaging 31 points over the first three games of the series, all of which resulted in Bulls victories, Jordan finished with 23 on 6 of 19 shooting in a loss in Game 4. It would seem that he bounced back in Game 5 when he scored 26 points on 11 of 22 shooting, except that scoring was really all he did.
Payton said that part of his defensive strategy for Jordan was to “tire him out.” This probably contributed to MJ having just four rebounds and one assist in Game 5. Jordan had at least two assists in his previous 36 playoff games.
Game 6, meanwhile, was Jordan’s third-worst shooting game in his playoff career. He finished just 5 of 19 from the field (though he did go 11 of 12 from the line), and had it not been for his and his teammates’ defensive prowess, the series might very well have gone to seven games.
Sam Quinn of CBS Sports pointed out that the Pistons of 1988, 1989 and 1990 were generally considered Jordan’s biggest obstacle. Then he showed that Michael averaged 27.4 points on 49.1% shooting vs. Detroit in the ’88 playoffs, 29.7 points on 46% shooting in the ’89 playoffs, and 32.1 points on 46.7% shooting in the 1990 playoffs, all of which resulted in the Bulls’ elimination.
But those last three games vs. the Sonics in ’96? Jordan averaged 23.7 points on 36.7% shooting.
Payton wasn’t able to win a championship in Seattle. And as he said, the result of the series might have been the same had he guarded MJ from Game 1.
We’re talking about the greatest player ever on his greatest team ever. But nobody can take away the defensive masterpiece GP displayed in Games 4, 5 and 6.
You might have thought Jordan was dismissing Payton’s effect on him with that hearty laugh. He wasn’t. Whether he likes it or not, he was acknowledging it.