Michael Jordan’s forgotten moments: From clutch playoff shots with Bulls, to throwback nights as aging Wizard

As arguably the greatest basketball who’s ever lived, and one of the most iconic sports figures of all time, Michael Jordan’s life and career have been detailed over and over, and in nearly every way possible. The latest, of course, is the long-awaited 10-part documentary series, “The Last Dance.”

Everyone knows the broad strokes with Jordan — from his rise as a youngster who was cut from his high school team, to starring at North Carolina and hitting the game-winning shot in the NCAA championship to winning six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls. They know the iconic moments on the court, which include scoring 63 points against the Celtics in the playoffs, “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo, “The Flu Game” and the title-clinching shot over Bryon Russell in 1998. They also know the more infamous moments off it: punching Steve Kerr, walking away to play baseball, his gambling troubles, etc. 

That, obviously, was not everything Jordan did in the course of his remarkable playing career. He had all sorts of other big shots and historic performances that have been relegated to footnotes simply because there’s usually not enough time. There’s plenty of time now, however, with no games being played. 

So with that, here’s a (chronological) look at some incredible moments from Jordan that have been overshadowed:

1988 NBA playoffs: Back-to-back 50-point games vs. Cavaliers in first round

  • Jordan’s Game 1 line: 50 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, two steals, two blocks
  • Jordan’s Game 2 line: 55 points, six rebounds, three assists, four steals

In the first round of the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs, the Bulls took down the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games, thanks to Jordan’s Game 5 buzzer-beater over Craig Ehlo. Series-clinching baskets are rare, so it’s no wonder “The Shot” is the only moment anyone really talks about in terms of Bulls-Cavaliers playoff matchups. 

Yet that remarkable play overshadowed the fact that one year earlier, when they also met in the first round, Jordan put up 50-plus points in both Game 1 and Game 2 to help the Bulls jump out to a 2-0 series lead. In the entire history of the NBA playoffs, there’s been 38 50-point games; Jordan had two of them in that series alone, and did it on back-to-back nights. Just ridiculous. 

In Game 1, he played 44 minutes and went for 50 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals on 19-of-35 from the field. To follow it up, he torched them for 55 points, six rebounds, three assists and four steals on 24-of-45 shooting, while once again playing 44 minutes. Talk about doing it all. 

“The Shot” is deservedly one of Jordan’s signature moments, but he had been torturing the Cavs in the playoffs long before he knocked that one down. He’s still the only player ever to record back-to-back 50-point games in the playoffs. 

1990 NBA regular season: Career-high 69 points vs. Cleveland

  • Jordan’s line: 69 points, 18 rebounds, six assists, four steals

On March 28, 1990, Michael Jordan dropped a career-high 69 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the entire history of the NBA, there’s only been 11 better scoring performances, and six of them were submitted by Wilt Chamberlain.

For most players, a game like that would be one of the highlights of their career, yet with Jordan it rarely gets mentioned. It’s not even his best moment against the Cavaliers. Such was his legend that the game probably means more to the league record books than it does to Jordan’s. 

Jordan was just a machine that night, putting up 69 points, 18 rebounds, six assists and four steals on 23-of-37 shooting from the field and 21 of 23 at the line. The Bulls needed every single one of them, too, as they narrowly escaped with a 117-113 win. 

While it was eventually overshadowed by his countless other accomplishments, Jordan proclaimed this his “greatest game” in the locker room afterwards. 

”This would have to be my greatest game,” Jordan said. ”When I scored 63 against Boston, we lost. It sure feels a lot better.”

1991 NBA Finals: Jordan sends Game 3 to overtime with last-second jumper

  • Jordan’s line: 29 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, four steals

Michael Jordan hit dozens of game-winning shots in his career, including many in the playoffs. But for this moment we’ll travel back to 1991 to remember a time he saved the Bulls with a game-tying jumper. 

Obviously context is always important, but it’s especially so in regards to this shot. While Jordan is one of the greatest winners the game has ever seen, his teams to this point in his career had always fallen short in the playoffs. Now, he was in the Finals for the first time, and not only that, but he had missed a potential game-winner just a few days earlier in Game 1. 

With the series tied up at 1-1, and the Bulls having lost home-court advantage, Game 3 on the road in Los Angeles was a crucial test. And late in the fourth quarter, the Lakers led by two at 92-90. That’s when Jordan stepped up for what, to that point, was the biggest play of his career.

Taking the ball the length of the court, Jordan stopped on a dime and rose up over Byron Scott and Vlade Divac to drill a mid-range jumper and tie things up at 92-92 with 3.4 seconds left. In overtime, Jordan outscored the Lakers by himself to help the Bulls pull away for the win. 

“It’s great having Michael on your team in that situation,” Bulls big man Horace Grant said after the game, in what proved to be an apt foreshadowing of Jordan’s career. “If he has 10 seconds, or even three seconds, you know he can score two points.”

From there, the Bulls won Games 4 and 5 to capture their first title in franchise history, and the first in Jordan’s career. The Lakers were old and injury-riddled toward the end of that series, so perhaps the Bulls pull it off even without winning Game 3, but there’s certainly no guarantees if Jordan doesn’t hit that shot. 

1997 NBA Finals: Buzzer-beating jumper to win Game 1

  • Jordan’s line: 31 points, four rebounds, eight assists

In the second full season of Jordan’s return from playing baseball, the Bulls cruised to the Finals having lost just two games in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But there, they faced a tough Utah Jazz team led by Karl Malone and John Stockton. 

Game 1 in Chicago went down to the wire, and with less than a minute left, Jordan tied things up at the free throw line. And after Karl Malone famously missed two free throws of his own with 7.5 seconds remaining, the Bulls had the ball with a chance to win.

Obviously the Bulls let Jordan go to work, and he took control on the wing in an isolation against Bryon Russell. Everyone remembers Jordan’s jumper over Russell to clinch his sixth and final championship in 1998, but what they might not know is it wasn’t even his first game-winner over Russell in the Finals.

On this occasion, Jordan sized him up with a few dribbles, crossed over to the left and pulled up just inside the 3-point line for the dagger, which gave the Bulls a 1-0 lead in the series. That good start proved to be crucial in what was an extremely close matchup.

The Bulls ended up winning in six games, 4-2, but three of those wins came by four points or less. If Jordan misses and the Jazz take that first game in overtime to steal home-court advantage, who’s to say how that series plays out. 

Plus, the way Game 1 ended was fitting after the MVP drama a few weeks earlier. Malone won his first MVP that season, but many, including Bulls head coach Phil Jackson, saw that decision as simply voter fatigue with Jordan. 

“He did his job, there’s no doubt about it, but for the excess weight that was put on our team and still to win 69 games, there’s no earthly explanation except that Michael won it so many times and this may be Malone’s opportunity,” Jackson said. 

For Jordan to come up clutch with the game on the line after Malone failed to do so just moments earlier only reinforced the idea that this was still Jordan’s league. 

2001 NBA regular season: 51 and 45 points on back-to-back games with Wizards

  • Jordan’s line vs. Hornets: 51 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals
  • Jordan’s line vs. Nets: 45 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, three steals

Michael Jordan’s second return to basketball with the Washington Wizards is largely an afterthought in the M.J. canon. He understandably wasn’t his old self, and the Wizards were a sub-.500 team that missed the playoffs in each of his two seasons in D.C. 

But even if he wasn’t the player the entire world was in awe of in the 1990s, he still had moments where he reminded everyone he was Michael Jordan. His skills, and especially his competitiveness, were always second to none. 

Nothing proved that more than a stretch of games just after Christmas. On the road in Indianapolis, Jordan submitted the worst scoring game of his career to that point, registering just six points. It was the first time he scored in single digits since March 22, 1986 — over 15 years and 866 games ago. 

“I knew where I was in terms of that,” Jordan said about sitting out the last 15-plus minutes against the Pacers. “I’m not here chasing any individual accolades.”
He may have taken the high road in his postgame comments, but there was no doubt his pride was hurt, and he took out his frustration on the Hornets and Nets in the next two games. 
First, he poured in 51 points on 21-of-38 shooting to lead the Wizards past the Hornets, becoming the oldest player (38 years old) to score 50 points in a game in NBA history. (Jamal Crawford later broke that record in 2019.) Then, he followed that up by dropping 45 points on 16 of 23 from the field in a victory over the Nets. 

“I’m pretty sure you guys were saying how old I was,” Jordan said after his 51-point game. “And I wanted certainly to make a statement offensively.”
New team, same old Jordan. 

In the grand scheme of things, those wins didn’t mean much, but it was still incredible to watch Jordan turn back the clock for a few nights and prove he still had something left in the tank. 

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