‘Last Dance’: Sorry MJ — stats show Sonics’ Payton gave you a problem
The big sports event over the last month has been “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary series on Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. And in Seattle, we’ve all been waiting for the episode covering the Sonics’ 1996 NBA Finals meeting with His Airness.
That episode arrived Sunday night, and it provided one of the more memorable moments of the series. You see, Sonics legend Gary Payton provided his thoughts on going one-on-one with MJ. Payton, aka “The Glove,” is still as brash as they come even 13 years removed from his last NBA game, and he let it be known that he gave Jordan fits when he switched to defending the Bulls superstar in the middle of the series.
Director Jason Hehir saw this as an opportunity, so in the episode he hands Jordan a tablet to watch Payton make his comments, during which Jordan laughs… and laughs… and then laughs some more. Finally, he hands the tablet back to Hehir and simply says one thing:
“I had no problem with The Glove.”
Oh really? You sure about that?
Let’s dig into why Jordan in fact did have a problem with The Glove, as well as a couple more Sonics-related takeaways from “The Last Dance” – or perhaps more accurately, some memories brought to mind from the episode.
Sorry MJ, but you can’t knock The Glove
This is actually a really easy argument to make, because it’s not all that difficult to determine that of every person who guarded Michael Jordan in the six NBA Finals he appeared in, Gary Payton was the best.
First of all, Payton didn’t start guarding Jordan until Game 4 of the ’96 Finals, which is unfortunate. Payton was nursing a calf injury, plus as a 6-foot-4 point guard he wasn’t the natural choice to defend Chicago’s 6-6 shooting guard. But without the 1995-96 NBA Defensive Player of the Year guarding MJ, Seattle didn’t have an answer and fell behind 3-0 in the best-of-seven series. So head coach George Karl made the call to put Payton on Jordan, and the Sonics clawed back into the series with back-to-back wins at home.
Jordan averaged 31 points in the first three games on 46% field-goal shooting, including 50% on 3-pointers. In the final three games of the series, Payton held Jordan to 23.7 points per game on 36.7% field-goal shooting and 11.1% shooting on treys. Jordan also went from 2.3 turnovers per game to 3.7 after the switch was made.
Here’s the breakdown of Jordan’s performance in each game Payton defended him:
• Game 4: 23 points, 6-19 FGs (31.6%), 0-2 3-pointers, four turnovers
• Game 5: 26 points, 11-22 FGs (50%), 0-4 3-pointers, two turnovers
• Game 6: 22 points, 5-19 FGs (26.3%), 1-3 3-pointers (33.3%), five turnovers
Here’s where it gets historic.
Jordan played in six NBA Finals in his NBA career, winning the title each time. Guess which Finals was hands-down his worst when it comes to offensive production? Bingo – 1996 against Gary Payton and the Seattle SuperSonics. His average of 27.3 points per game was the lowest of the six Finals series, as was his 41.5% field-goal shooting. His 3 turnovers per game was his second-worst average in that statistic, as was his 31.6% shooting from beyond the arc.
I even went to the trouble of looking at every playoff series Jordan ever played in – a grand total of 37 over 13 postseason trips in his career. Only once did an opponent hold Jordan to a lower points per game average – Atlanta kept him to 26.6 in a five-game Bulls series victory in the 1998 conference semifinals. And only twice did Jordan shoot worse from the field than against Seattle – 40% against the Knicks in the 1993 conference finals, and 38.7% against the Heat in the ’97 conference finals.
That means to me that nobody did a better job of playing defense against Jordan in the playoffs than the 1996 Sonics, and the man who gets the credit should be Gary Payton.
When you’re the GOAT, you’re free to think what you think. But Gary Payton was The Glove, and whether Jordan wants to laugh him off or not, the numbers don’t lie.
If you’re interested in a much deeper dive into Payton’s performance against Jordan, check out this in-depth piece from CBS Sports.
No delusions of grandeur here
The Sonics have been on the minds of a lot of Seattle sports fans during our days in quarantine, and my colleague Tom Wassell of 710 ESPN Seattle’s Tom, Jake and Stacy had a really interesting question last week pertaining to our old NBA team. As a transplant to our fair city, he wanted to know if Sonics fans were buying into the team’s chances to come back and win the ’96 Finals after they took two games to make it a 3-2 series.
For Sonics fans who remember the '96 Finals:
After falling down 3-0, but then rallying for 2 wins to send the series back to CHI for Game 6, did you feel confident that SEA could complete the comeback?
— Tom Wassell (@tomwassell) May 6, 2020
My exact response: “Sure didn’t!” And there were plenty more like that in response to Tom’s tweet.
Look, I’m the most optimistic sports fan you may ever come across. Some call it naive; my friends in school called it gullible. But coming back from 3-0 against Michael Jordan and the Bulls? That’s tugging on Superman’s cape, and even me as a hopeful 10-year-old kid absolutely obsessed with all things Shawn Kemp and the Seattle SuperSonics knew the series wasn’t going to end well. The Sonics had missed their shot (I’ll get back to that in second).
Speaking of tugging on Superman’s cape, you had to know a story explaining Jordan’s motivation for beating the Sonics was coming in “The Last Dance,” and it absolutely did. This came from Ahmad Rashād, the Tacoma native and former Mount Tahoma High School football star who parlayed a stellar NFL career into an on-air NBA on NBC role and a close friendship with Jordan. He said Karl, a North Carolina alum like Jordan, decided to ignore Jordan rather than say hi when they happened to be at the same restaurant during the Finals.
That was enough for Jordan.
Would it have mattered if Karl had said hello? Well, in the previous episode of “The Last Dance,” it was explained that after Washington Bullets guard Labradford Smith had a big performance against Jordan and the Bulls, he said, “Nice game, Mike.” That made Jordan want to destroy Smith on the court, which he did in quick order the next time Chicago and Washington faced each other. Of course the story doesn’t end there, as Jordan later revealed that Smith didn’t actually say anything and he completely made up the perceived slight. So, no, I don’t think it would have mattered if Karl had actually dropped by Jordan’s table. He would have found (or made up) another reason to motivate himself against the Sonics.
Too little, too late
When “The Last Dance” started covering the Sonics-Bulls series, they played a clip from NBC’s Game 1 pregame broadcast where Bob Costas said some were calling the matchup the “greatest mismatch in NBA Finals history.”
It didn’t end up being that, even though the Bulls were considered the greatest team ever at the time after finishing a record-setting 72-10 during the regular season. But that’s kind of the problem right there.
The Sonics were a really good team, as Payton stressed in his interview on the documentary. They themselves had gone 64-18 to win the Western Conference’s top seed, and they even split the season series with the Bulls 1-1. But with Jordan back in the NBA, nobody really stood a shot against the Bulls. I mean, Jordan played in six NBA Finals, and he has six NBA championships. And with a full year back in the game after un-retiring by the time the playoffs rolled around, he was back to being his old self.
The Sonics, meanwhile, had their shot during the two years Jordan was away. They looked like they were going to rise to the occasion in 1994, finishing with an NBA-best 63-19 record with a high-flying lineup led by Payton and Kemp, who were still very young but reaching their full potential. They were helped out by a group of solid veterans including Ricky Pierce, Nate McMillan and Sam Perkins, and the additions of Detlef Schremph and Kendall Gill gave them some extra star power and athleticism.
The Sonics were the best team in the league that year, and Jordan was off playing baseball. The title was theirs to claim.
Well, you know what happened. They fell flat on their faces in the playoffs, blowing a 2-0 lead against the upstart Denver Nuggets to become the first No. 1 seed in NBA history to lose a series to a No. 8 seed. It’s still the most traumatic event I’ve ever endured as a sports fan.
The Sonics were good the next season, too, going 57-25 to take the West’s fourth seed to the playoffs, but they were unceremoniously bounced again in the first round, this time by a not particularly great Lakers team stuck in between the Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant/Shaq eras. And instead of the Sonics, it was Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets who dominated during basketball’s MJ-less period, winning both the 1994 and 1995 titles.
Seattle re-tooled, sending Gill to Charlotte for Hersey Hawkins, and the team was finally ready for the gauntlet that is the postseason in 1996. The Sonics got past the Kings in the first round, obliterated the Rockets in a four-game sweep (that might be the crowning achievement of the 1990s Sonics) and outlasted the Jazz in seven games in the conference finals to get their shot at Jordan and the Bulls.
But, they were exhausted. Karl has said he didn’t help matters by deciding the team would hop a late plane back to Seattle after a Game 2 loss in Chicago, a flight that had issues and had to land in Montana to refuel. As a result, the team didn’t get home until 5 a.m. and lost Game 3 at home. Then there were injuries that hampered Payton and limited McMillan, who appeared in just four games and saw only 50 total minutes of playing time in the Finals.
But really, did it matter? The Sonics certainly could have given the Bulls more of a series, but in a lot of ways they had already missed their chance. The Payton- and Kemp-led teams weren’t ready to make a deep run into the playoffs until 1996, and while they were at the best at the time, it was bad timing. Because Michael Jordan was wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey, and that was that.