Even before the season-ending injury to Indiana’s Paul George, the Chicago Bulls were tabbed as the most likely team to stand in the way of the Cleveland Cavaliers reaching the NBA Finals. Those potential circumstances are reason enough to explore the resumption of a rivalry that has spanned the last 30 years, a stretch highlighted by the play of Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
The last time the two teams played in a relevant game was four years ago in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. In the midst of that series, the Bulls’ Joakim Noah did his best to stoke the embers of the faded rivalry by making a series of derogatory comments about the city of Cleveland itself.
The Cavaliers won the series in five games to temporarily quiet Noah, but followed it up by getting knocked out by the Boston Celtics. Two months later, even worse news arrived when the first James era came to an end.
Since that time, the rivalry has been one-sided in favor of Chicago, with the Bulls winning 13 of 15 games, including seven of eight at Quicken Loans Arena. That was slightly better than Cleveland’s 13-6 mark in the post-Jordan, pre-LeBron era.
At its start–during Jordan’s first three years–both teams were in the midst of rebuilding projects, with Chicago holding a slim 10-8 advantage in games played.
The rivalry soon reached its peak during a seven-year span (from 1988-94) when the teams faced each other in the postseason four times. In each case, the Bulls moved on to the next round, though the first two went to the limit. Each series loss would resonate in different ways for Cavalier fans, with different levels of pain inflicted on their psyche.
In 1988, Chicago took a 2-0 first round series lead before Cleveland bounced back to send it to a decisive fifth game. Unfortunately, lack of depth behind the Cavaliers’ Mark Price, doomed the team to a 107-101 loss.
The following year, the Cavaliers dominated the regular season, winning all six matchups. However, the road got tougher in another first round series, when the two teams split the first four contests, and again headed to a fifth game. Craig Ehlo’s layup with three seconds to go seemingly clinched it for Cleveland, but Michael Jordan’s jumper at the buzzer (aka The Shot) etched another scar into Cleveland sports history.
That heartbreaking finish lingered for the next two seasons, as the Bulls won all 10 regular season games between the two squads, capturing their first NBA title at the conclusion of that second season.
Pushing the rivalry up a notch the next season, the two teams battled in the Eastern Conference finals, with the Cavaliers being ridiculed as “marshmallows,” in response to their finesse play.
That style went on to become a memorable part of the series, starting when Danny Ferry was ejected for throwing two punches at Jordan in Game Four. Two nights later, Chicago got its revenge when Stacey King was ejected after hammering Ferry near the basket, leading to both benches briefly emptying.
The scuffle came after the Bulls were in the midst of blowing the game open during a 15-0 fourth quarter run. Chicago then went on to finish things off in Game Six before then capturing its second title.
The following two years were more of the same, with Cleveland not even managing to win a single postseason game. The Bulls put the Cavaliers out of their misery in the first with another Jordan buzzer-beater, then closed out action at the Richfield Coliseum the next year without His Airness, who was in the first of his three retirements.
Upon Jordan’s return, the defensive-minded Cavaliers put up a decent fight at home in their games against a team in the midst of titles four through six, winning five of eight. However, they struggled when traveling to Chicago, dropping eight of nine clashes.
When looking at how the teams have been able to advance, the presence of a Jordan or James has seemingly determined the difference. James has broken 50 points in a game three times, but never against the Bulls, whereas Jordan twice reached that threshold versus Cleveland, including an amazing 69-point performance on March 28, 1990.
Still, in his 55 games against the Bulls (15 in the playoffs), both with the Cavaliers and Heat, James has tallied 30 or more points 40 percent of the time. Therefore, he may not need to put up huge numbers, given the presence of Kyrie Irving in the backcourt, coupled with the arrival of Kevin Love from Minnesota. He will still have to contend, however, with the likes of Noah and guard Derrick Rose.
Fans won’t have to wait long to see the resumption of this rivalry, with the two teams scheduled to tip off during the first week of action. The Halloween night matchup at the United Center in Chicago will lay the groundwork for a season of competitive play between the two teams, one that is expected to culminate in late May during the Eastern Conference finals.