The stage was set. It was the 1998 Eastern Conference finals. The Indiana Pacers had just staved off defeat with a Game 6 win at home. Now, they would have to do the unthinkable – beat the defending champion Chicago Bulls on their home floor to get to the NBA Finals.
From the very first day of training camp, then-Pacers head coach Larry Bird had told his team they needed to secure home-court advantage for the NBA playoffs. That, of course, didn’t happen.
So, when the Pacers met before the start of that deciding Game 7 in Chicago’s United Center, Bird simply told his team, “Forget the Xs and Os, let’s go out and kick their ass!”
Indiana came out and jumped to a quick 20-7 lead as they rode the 7-foot-3-inch Rik Smits and forward Dale Davis. The Pacers’ Mark Jackson was taken out of his normal game the entire series by the Bulls Scottie Pippen.
Indiana countered with the NBA’s fifth-best defense and held Chicago star Michael Jordan to just one basket in his first five shots. A 13-point lead in those days was huge. The problem was it was still very early. As the Pacers Chris Mullin once said, “The only thing worse than being down 13 is being up 13.”
Indiana’s Reggie Miller rested the first 4:38 of the second quarter. The Pacers did not score a single field goal while he was out. The Bulls would take a 31-30 lead later in the quarter after Jordan rebounded his own missed free throw and scored on a putback.
The Bulls led 48-45 at the half. In the third quarter, Toni Kukoc finally came to life and hit five straight shots, including three 3-pointers. The result was Chicago’s biggest lead of the game, 69-61. A pair of Davis free throws pulled Indiana to within four, 69-65, as the third quarter ended.
After the Bulls offense struggled without Jordan early in the fourth quarter, the moment that changed this Game 7 came. Jordan and Smits would fight for a loose ball and in the days before the alternate possession rule, the result was a jump ball.
Smits, a full nine inches taller than Jordan, struggled on the jump and the ball was deflected to Pippen. Jordan would miss a shot and the ball once again was deflected to Pippen. In the chaos, two Pacers ended up on Jordan which meant one thing – someone was open.
Pippen found that someone – Steve Kerr – the long-range sniper who nailed the 3-pointer that tied the score. It also brought the United Center to life. The Pacers would not score another point in the final two minutes of the game and the Bulls would eventually win 88-83.
Indiana fought hard and provided Chicago with its scariest Game 7 ever.