Michael Jordan’s 63-point performance vs. Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics on April 20, 1986 in the first round of the NBA Playoffs comes steeped in caveats.
“Well, the game went to double overtime, so…”
“Well, not only did the Bulls lose the game, but they also got swept in the series, so…”
“Well, he might have scored a lot, but he’s played better overall games…”
Maybe some of those things have merit, maybe they don’t. But it’s not like someone scores 63 points every time a game goes to double overtime, you know?
The further away we get from Michael Jordan’s playing career, and the more its memory is clouded by more recent stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, the more games like Game 2 of the 1986 playoff series between the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics can go one of two ways. They can be hoisted up as touchstones that we use to describe someone’s talents in shorthand, or they can be brushed aside as stories built up by lore rather than facts.
It would be in your best interest to consider the former before doing the latter.
This was, after all, still the early years of the Michael Jordan Experience. His Bulls wouldn’t become world-beaters for another five years. They limped into the playoffs with an abysmal 30-52 record, 37 games behind the Eastern Conference-leading Celtics. That’s the fifth-worst record of any team that has ever qualified for the NBA Playoffs.
However, none of that was Jordan’s fault. In his second year in the NBA, his season had been cut short by a broken foot suffered in the third game. He would miss 64 games, the bulk of the season, before returning just in time to participate in the playoffs. Not that it was expected to last very long, considering they were matched up with the 67-15 Celts.
Speaking of the Celtics, there are still many who consider this specific iteration of the storied franchise to be the best NBA team to ever lace them up. The squad was led by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge, all at the height of their powers. Bill Walton was their sixth man, for chrissake. Not only did those Celtics dominate the regular season, but they would go on to defeat the Houston Rockets for the NBA Championship in a few weeks time. Bird was League MVP and first-team All-NBA, McHale made the NBA All-Defensive Team, and Walton won Sixth Man of the Year.
To say no one expected much from the Celtics-Bulls series was an understatement. Game One came and went with a Celtics’ 123-104 victory in Boston Garden and more of the same was expected three days later for Game Two.
Lost to history, however, is the fact that Jordan scored 49 points in Game One with nine-time all-defensive team guard Dennis Johnson in his face the entire night. That was simply the opening act. According to Celtics bench player Jerry Sichting, Johnson figured he’d gotten Jordan’s best and the team had survived.
“He’s in the shower after that Game 1 when Michael has 49,” recalled Sichting. “He’s got the stat sheet stuck to the wall and he’s staring at it. He’s all soaped up and he says, ‘The good news is we beat them. Michael is never going to have another game like that again.'”
What’s funny about the way Jordan’s scoring begins in Game 2 is that he doesn’t actually score his first two points of the night. He drove to the basket, but his shot was deflected too late by Robert Parish, leading to a goaltending call. It was the last time all night that Jordan would take what the Celtics gave him. From there on out, he would blow by the league’s best defenders, thanks to a lightning-fast first step and dominant drive to the hoop. Jordan also seemed to have an uncanny knack for knowing when the situation called for a short jumper instead of a contested layup.
It’s not necessarily that the Celtics played bad defense. Bird took Jordan on multiple occasions and was able to shut down his drives. Jordan simply crossed up the legend and settled for a jumper. And another. And another.
Jordan actually slowed down in the second quarter, thanks to some good defense by Ainge and went into halftime with 23 points. Some have often wondered if Jordan could have scored 100 points that night, had he decided to. But there were multiple instances when he backed off the ball. His teammates took 61 shots that night, so it’s not like he hogged the ball from them.
In the second half, the Bulls started to build a lead and, perhaps spooked by everything that had happened up until then, Dennis Johnson played Jordan so closely that he was often in Michael’s face despite not knowing where the ball actually was. The Celts tried everything, but Jordan simply outmaneuvered whatever adjustment they tried.
Still, Boston was able to wrest back a lead from the Bulls, going ahead 116-114 with 27 seconds left. After a Bird miss, the Bulls got the ball back and naturally put it in the hands of Jordan. Jordan attempted his first three-pointer of the game in an attempt to win, but was fouled by McHale. Back then, you only got two free throws when fouled shooting a three, but it was all Michael needed. Despite a booing Boston crowd, he sank them both with ice in his veins, capping regulation with 54 points and sending the game into overtime.
The Bulls took a lead in the first overtime, but the Celtics knotted the game up as the period wound down. Jordan had a chance to hit the game-winner, but missed. The score was tied 125-125, Jordan now had 59 points, and on to double overtime we went.
It was only then that the Celtics seemed to figure out how they could neutralize His Airness In The Making. They started trapping him in the backcourt and he missed his first four shots of the period. Still, he did enough to tie Elgin Baylor’s NBA playoff record of 61 points with a mid-range jumper and then set a new mark with 63 points on a floater from the just inside the key. One last time, he sliced through Boston’s vaunted defense. Yet he wouldn’t score in the final minute and Boston was able to scratch out a 135-131 victory.
Jordan and his teammates seemingly used up everything they had in that double-overtime loss, as Boston cruised to a 122-104 win in Game 3, sweeping the series and happy to leave Michael Jordan behind them. MJ finished that game with a pedestrian (for him) 19 points.
There are probably “better” Michael Jordan games out there, and there are certainly more polished Michael Jordan games out there. Perhaps, though, there aren’t any more important Michael Jordan games than this one. It’s important because of what Jordan didn’t accomplish.
Despite all of his efforts, all his scoring, all his domination… the Bulls lost. He put the team on his back and refused to be intimidated, but in the end the Celtics were simply too good. It must have been a signal to Jordan that he still had improvements to make and also that he needed a stronger supporting cast.
Ultimately, both of those things would happen and Jordan’s Bulls would eventually accomplish things Bird’s Celtics never did. In 1986, however, this game was a signal flare to the NBA and all of its teams. Enjoy your success for now, because this is only the beginning.
Larry Bird himself said it best afterward. “I didn’t think anyone was capable of doing what Michael has done to us. He is the most exciting, awesome player in the game today. I think it’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”