SALT LAKE CITY -- Of all the magical feats that Michael Jordan has rendered over the years, all the peerless performances, this was the best.
At 35 years old, on the road, with his gas tank on empty and his sidekick all but useless, with his legs gone and his team down by three points to the Utah Jazz with 41.9 seconds left, he picked up the Chicago Bulls and dragged them to another NBA championship all by himself.
Three plays. Three magical plays. The stuff of legends.
"The best performance ever by Michael Jordan in a critical situation," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said.
If it was Jordan's final game, what a spectacular, unforgettable way to go out.
First, he hit a driving basket to cut the deficit to one point with 37 seconds left.
Then, at the other end, he stole the ball from Karl Malone to give the Bulls a chance.
And finally, with the season on the line and the Jazz incredibly guarding him with one defender, he hit a jump shot from the free-throw line with 5.2 seconds left.
One, two, three plays. Instant sports history.
One minute, Utah's fans were rattling the walls of the Delta Center, celebrating a three-point lead and anticipating a Game 7 on Wednesday night.
The next minute, after Utah's John Stockton missed a three-pointer at the end, the building was silent, the season was over and the Bulls were NBA champions for the sixth time in the '90s.
The Jazz will never forget this one. It got 31 points from Malone, held a small lead for most of the second half and was on the wrong end of two bad calls -- both involving shot-clock violations -- that represented a five-point swing for the Bulls.
"That's part of this business," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "You're still the loser."
Because of Jordan. He played 44 of 48 minutes, took 35 of the Bulls' 67 shots, attempted 15 of their 19 free throws and scored 45 of their 87 points.
"I don't know that anyone could write a scenario quite as dramatic as that," Jackson said. "Michael is the guy that always comes through in the clutch. He's a winner and he's proven it so many times, over and over again. How many times does he have to show us that's he's a real-life hero?"
He was the Bulls' only offensive option late in the game, with Toni Kukoc all but invisible and Scottie Pippen reduced to a decoy with a sore back.
The Jazz knew Jordan was coming. The whole world knew he was coming.
And Jordan was out of gas.
He was running on fumes, doubled over at the waist during clock stoppages, tongue hanging out, legs gone, jump shot clanging off the rim as the fourth quarter wore on.
A young gunslinger of a defender, Utah's Bryon Russell, was denying him the driving lanes he wanted.
He missed six of his first eight shots in the fourth quarter, including three in a row as the game hung in the balance in the final three minutes.
The shots were short, tired, the shots of a 35-year-old trying to rediscover a magical touch that was gone.
Still, he found a way to keep the Bulls alive.
It wasn't vintage Jordan, the fanciful stuff that sells shoes. It was blue-collar Jordan, a grinder who simply refused to lose.
He drove to the basket, got fouled and made two free throws with 2: 08 left to cut Utah's lead to 83-81.
A minute later, he drove hard again, got fouled again and made two more free throws to tie the Jazz at 83.
"You can double-team him, force him to the middle, do what you can against him, but great players still make great plays," Sloan said.
Utah's Stockton broke the tie with what seemed to be a decisive shot, a three-pointer from above the key with 41.9 seconds left. The Delta Center rocked with noise during the ensuing timeout.
Jackson had a simple message for Jordan as he sat on the bench.'
"He told me to take it to the hole," Jordan said. "I came out and got the bucket."
Tired legs? Not with the game on the line.
The Jazz then came upcourt and ran a play that got the ball to Malone on the right baseline. Jordan swept in from behind, knocked the ball away and grabbed it.
"Karl never saw me," Jordan said. "I saw a chance and I took it."
Running on fumes? Not with a chance to steal a title and silence a crowd.
Without calling time, Jordan dribbled upcourt and gathered himself at the key with eight seconds left. There was no doubt who was going to take the shot.
Only one Jazz defender, Russell, was on him.
It was a tactical mistake that the Jazz will rue forever.
Jordan isn't that old yet.
When he feinted to the right, Russell reached for the ball. That was all Jordan needed.
"As soon as he reached, he gave me a clear lane," Jordan said. "I got [to the free-throw line], pulled up, had a great look. The shot fell. I knew that we had been hanging around [the lead] long enough, that that was the game-winning basket. All we had to do was play good defense one more time."
When Stockton's shot missed, Jordan had written the latest chapter of his remarkable career.
The last chapter? Who knows?
The best chapter? Absolutely.
Mark of a champion
Michael Jordan has six NBA Finals MVP awards to go with his six titles. How Jordan has performed in the championship series:
.. ... .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .FG .. .. .FT
Year .. ..Opponent .. .. .. .. .. .. pct. ..pct. ..Reb. ..Ast. ...Pts.
1990-91 ..Los Angeles Lakers .. ... 55.8 . 84.8 .. 6.6 . 11.4 ... 31.2
1991-92 ..Portland Trail Blazers .. 52.6 . 89.1 .. 4.8 .. 6.5 ... 35.8
1992-93 ..Phoenix Suns .. .. .. ... 50.8 . 69.4 .. 8.5 .. 6.3 ... 41.0*
1995-96 ..Seattle SuperSonics .. .. 41.5 .83.66 .. 5.3 .. 4.2 ... 27.3
1996-97 ..Utah Jazz .. .. .. .. ... 45.6 . 76.4 .. 7.0 .. 6.0 ... 32.3
1997-98 ..Utah Jazz .. .. .. .. ... 42.7 . 81.4 .. 4.0 .. 2.3 ... 33.5
* -- NBA Finals record
Pub Date: 6/15/98