The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers met in an instant classic in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, which is soon to be on “The Last Dance”.
In the last two parts of the documentary series featuring the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls team “The Last Dance”, a certain spotlight will be shined on that difficult Eastern Conference Finals series against the Indiana Pacers. That was one of the most challenging playoff series that all of those great Bulls teams during the dynasty years would run into.
A pivotal Game 7 would decide that conference finals at the United Center in Chicago. The Pacers were a well-known divisional foe of the Bulls, but they didn’t really come on until the first retirement for all-time great shooting guard Michael Jordan from his playing days. The first time that the Pacers made the conference finals in the 1990’s was in the first year where MJ was playing baseball in the Chicago White Sox minor league organization.
The Pacers made two straight conference finals in those seasons where the Bulls were either without MJ completely, or with an out of shape version of him, in 1994 and 1995. But they could never quite get past teams like the New York Knicks or Orlando Magic.
Just like the Knicks throughout the 1990’s, the Pacers did their best to push the Bulls to the brink and finally get to the NBA Finals. But it just wasn’t happening in 1998. The Pacers pushed the Bulls about as far as anyone did in the conference finals while MJ was at the top of his game.
Part eight of The Last Dance finished up with the Pacers legendary shooting guard Reggie Miller talking about how he was trying to finish off Jordan in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, since he had heard “whispers” about this being his last year. Miller also mentioned that he felt like the Pacers were truly the better of the two teams.
If nothing else, these two teams were definitely close. The Pacers came into this playoff series off a regular season record of 58-24. That was good for second best in the Eastern Conference, only behind the top seeded Bulls.
It already looked as if the Bulls were going to have a much more difficult matchup on their hands than they had in the first two rounds of the 1998 playoffs, garnering wins over the New Jersey Nets and Charlotte Hornets. The Bulls had dispatched of the Hornets and Nets with relative ease, only losing one game combined in those two initial playoff series.
Miller and the Pacers would be a different story, as they were the first team to push the Bulls to a seven-game series in one that Chicago won since the Knicks did in the 1992 conference semifinals. There were only three playoff series throughout Jordan’s career that were pushed to seven games, and only two of them resulted in series victories. The one that he lost came in the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals against the eventual champions Detroit Pistons.
Not only would the Pacers drag the 1998 conference finals to seven games, the final one of that series was a complete dog fight. The Bulls only came out on top in Game 7 with a five-point win over Miller and the Pacers at home at the United Center.
In that hard fought conference finals series, the home team won every game. The Bulls finished off the Pacers at the United Center, but would never come out on top when they traveled to Indianapolis. The Pacers frontcourt pairing of Dale Davis and Rik Smits was very hard for the Bulls to deal with. Miller also went off on numerous occasions, making it difficult for Jordan and the Bulls to manage on the road.
Starting in Game 3, Reggie pushed Michael really hard. In that one game, Miller posted an offensive rating above 150, box plus/minus rating above 12.0, and 28 points to go along with just one turnover. Jordan did finish that game with two more points than Miller, but he also had five turnovers and a box plus/minus rating barely above zero.
Part of what allowed the Pacers to get so close to beating the Bulls was the overall depth they had in the rotation along with a certain attitude that Jordan wasn’t met with often. It seemed like The Last Dance showed that Seattle SuperSonics legendary point guard Gary Payton came through with a very confident approach that he wouldn’t shy away from Jordan in the 1996 NBA Finals, and it gave his team a big push late in the series.
Although the Pacers didn’t come out on top, the nature in which they pushed the Bulls was all too rare to find during those great Jordan years in the Windy City. Miller’s trash talk and insanely good shooting ability from outside were tough to deal with for the Bulls.
Throughout their careers, Miller and Jordan were two of the most infamous trash talkers that the NBA had to offer. But they greatly differed in the ways that they went about trash talking. Miller never got to the point that he wanted to with the Pacers, and he wanted to reach the heights that Jordan did with the Bulls.
Miller loved to trash talk during his career, and it worked wonders against most of his opposition (note shooting guard Tony Starks of the Knicks). But he would pick on players that he knew he could beat, and where trash talk would get in their heads and help him win games.
It sounds like Reggie didn’t want to confront Jordan with his trash talking since he knew what it would do in the 1998 conference finals. He was smart in doing that, but it still didn’t get him past the Bulls in the end.
Jordan also didn’t have much trash talk for Reggie in the 1998 conference finals. They didn’t seem to like each other at all, but the mental game between both shooting guards was immense. They knew that each could trash talk with the best of them.
However, given how much trash talking Reggie did during his career, it just shows the greatness of Jordan and the Bulls that he didn’t try to through dirt at them in the 1998 conference finals. That doesn’t takeaway from the fact that Miller was one of the great trash talkers of all-time.
Jordan didn’t build his greatness off of trash talking, so much as motivation. He is one of the great self-motivators of all-time, and adding more fuel to his tank by adding to that chip on his shoulder was just not a smart move for any of his opponents. And Miller understood that fact.
It’s a shame that the Pacers and Bulls only met in the playoffs once during the Jordan years in Chicago. Miller and Jordan would face each other a whopping 49 times in the regular season, but only once in that classic seven-game series in the 1998 conference finals.