Breaking down the sequence that set up Michael Jordan’s iconic ‘Last Shot’

Michael Jordan looks up at the score during the third quarter of an NBA Finals game against the Utah Jazz in 1998. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

With 41 seconds left to go in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz, Karl Malone found his fellow Hall-of-Fame pick-and-roll partner John Stockton circling around to the right wing and delivered a laser cross-court pass out of the left block as Stockton got freed up for a wide-open three-pointer to give Utah a three-point lead and sights set on a winner-take-all Game 7 in their championship series.

The Bulls would take a timeout afterwards and what would follow is one of the most iconic 36-second spans in sports history — Michael Jordan scoring to pull the Bulls within one, stealing the ball from Malone on the ensuing defensive possession and then hitting his famous ‘last shot’ to give Chicago a one-point lead and, ultimately, their sixth championship.

“Michael came up with three great plays to end the game and that’s what great players do, and he showed up and was unbelievable,” said former Bulls player Scott Burrell, who was on sidelines watching from Chicago’s bench stressed out.

You can relive this moment and more as Sportsnet is airing Game 6: The Movie, an in-depth look with some never-before-seen footage of the game, this Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET.

But before you check that out, here’s a closer look at how that famous four-point run that saw Jordan close his Bulls career on top happened:

Bulls go two-for-one

One of the most important things to take note of from this sequence is the fact that, coming out of the timeout, Jordan quickly attacked to get a two-for-one opportunity.

Looking at the clip above, you’ll notice the Bulls were, by design, spread out to give Jordan an opportunity to attack Bryon Russell one-on-one.

After receiving the inbounds pass, Jordan was already aware of the situation and quickly went into his little hesitation move before exploding by Russell for the easy layup, pulling the Bulls within one with 37 seconds left.

“You’ve gotta go when you can go,” Burrell said. “I think about the longer you wait in the shot clock, the more teams know what you’re gonna do. So he saw an opportunity, drove it hard and got a layup.”

The speed with which Jordan attacked the hole is significant because he was clearly thinking of giving the Bulls – and himself – the opportunity at the last shot in the game as, even if Utah used all 24 seconds in the ensuing possession, that would still give Chicago a healthy 13 seconds left to work with at the end of the game.

The conclusion of the contest didn’t end up working that way, but it was still the smartest option for the Bulls at the time.

The steal

In The Last Dance, while explaining this sequence, Jordan mentioned the fact that the Jazz had run this pet play of theirs to give Malone an opportunity on the left block that they’ve done before.

On Jeff Hornacek after he blew by Russell in the previous Bulls possession, the way the Jazz play works is while Stockton gets into position closer to the left baseline to make the entry pass, Hornacek sets a back screen on Malone’s man – Dennis Rodman, in this case. But instead of going with Hornacek, who was clearing out to the corner, Jordan opted to stay just in Malone’s blind spot and come up with a brilliantly clean – and fortuitous – strip of the ball to give the Bulls an opportunity to win the game with 18 seconds left to play.

“The thing about that play people don’t realize is that ball could’ve went out of bounds so easily off Dennis’ leg, off Michael’s leg, off Karl’s leg,” said Burrell. “Thank God it stayed inbounds and Michael was able to scoop it up.”

No timeout taken

While the made shot is obviously what everyone focuses on due to its iconic nature, and also because it gave Chicago the lead with five seconds left, the opportunity Jordan had to attack Russell the way he did to help setup that 18-footer from the top of the key was made possible in part because Chicago opted not to take a timeout, even though they had one.

“I don’t think there was any thought that there should be a timeout there,” Burrell said. “I mean, there’s nothing better than having the ball in the best player in the world’s hands — the best player to ever play. If you call a timeout you’re giving the team time to figure out its defence.”

In letting Jordan just walk the ball up and then immediately go into his move, it created an opportunity for him to just attack Russell one-on-one without much fear of a double coming, because the Jazz weren’t able to take their time and get into their set defence. Instead, Utah was forced to play regular man-to-man, and with the way the Bulls players spread out, it left that entire top-of-key area completely open for Jordan to operate.

“Without calling timeout the ball stays in MJ’s hands, everybody stays low, he clears everybody out and he’s unstoppable one-on-one,” Burrell later added. “So it’s the best scenario for us.”

Was it an offensive foul?

A question that will never go away for as long as basketball exists, it would seem.

According to Jordan himself in The Last Dance, as well as Burrell, Russell’s momentum was taking him left and all Jordan had to do was guide him enough there and then stop in order to open up the shot the way he did.

“MJ saw Russell running by, and it wasn’t like he was sliding, he was running and MJ stopped with a pull-up jumper and I don’t think he pushed. If you want to see an offensive foul, that’s the Indiana game when Reggie Miller got an offensive foul. But there’s no fouls called at the end of the game and you’ve just got to be tough and play it out.”

The contact Jordan makes with Russell in the replay does make a compelling argument that this was a bit of a push off from Jordan, but ultimately complaining about it is a moot point.

Not only was the way everything shook out just how it all happened, even in today’s game with much stricter rules of contact in place, you’re still unlikely to find an official who would actually make that call.

With under 30 seconds to play and the best player in the world looking to finish the game, there’s no way an official is going to make a call there. The worst thing a referee could do in that situation is to potentially determine the outcome of the game with his/her whistle.

Five breathless seconds left

Perhaps because Jordan went a little too quickly on that first layup, or even when he went for that jumper over Russell in the possession just before, but the Jazz legitimately had a chance to win the game still and force a Game 7.

The play out of the timeout for Utah seems pretty simple. Put the ball in Stockton’s hands and see what he can do.

The result was actually still a pretty good look from three, albeit contested by Ron Harper, that just saw the ball fall a few inches short and rim out, officially marking the Bulls’ second three-peat in eight years.

As Burrell described it, there were some serious nerves on the bench at the time as five seconds was still a good amount of time, but fortunately for Chicago, Stockton ended up missing.

“You still have two Hall-of-Famers there in the all-time leading assist leader and the second all-time scoring leader. So yeah, you are still nervous, the game wasn’t over and you’re playing on their home court. So you’re ready for a dramatic ending, but it came out in our favour and it was time to celebrate after that.”

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