NBA History: What if there was a Game 7 between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz in 1998?

Mike Ehrmann

If you are a Utah Jazz fan, the wounds of the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals most likely have yet to heal. The darling Chicago Bulls capped off their 5th and 6th Championships against our Jazz, the only team good enough to face the Bulls twice. (The Lakers, Trail Blazers, Suns, and Sonics only all got there once) That is little consolation for Jazz fans though. While it would be nice to have a championship . . . we're much too goody-goody to ask for it. Looking at everything that has happened to the team, and there are plenty of "what if" ideas, what if the Jazz drafted Chris Paul over Deron Williams, what if Greg Monroe fell to the Jazz, what if Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur were healthy for two of our playoff runs . . . no. The only what if in Jazzland that anyone cares for is "what if there was a Game 7 between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz in 1998?"

I'm not crazy, ask any Jazz fan worth their salt and if they are old enough to have been a Jazz fan back in those days, then they'll tell you. Sure, I had finished my first year of undergrad and that was 15 years ago -- but I still remember that day clearly. I was an international Jazz fan, living in Canada. Because of fate, I was going on a family vacation on June 14th, 1998 -- and landed in a non-basketball crazy country (England -- back during the 1998 World Cup) and I did not actually find out that the Jazz lost Game 6 until 2 weeks later. (As an aside, because fate is crazy, I also met a girl from Chicago during that 2 weeks, and we've been together ever since, but that is a story for another day...)

As soon as I got back to civilization I became livid. Back then I felt like the Jazz were cheated -- out of a championship. But today I have softened somewhat, the Jazz were only cheated out of a chance to honestly play for one.

What? What are you saying Amar? Get over it. The Bulls won. Jordan stripped Malone, and hit a jumper over Bryon Russell. You're not saying that the Jazz should have won because Jordan may have pushed off, are you?

Of course not. Games appear to be won or lost based upon single plays . . . but in reality games are won or lost based upon 48 minutes of play (or more). Similarly, you don't lose a playoff series because of one game, but because of how you play over the course of it. Sometimes we miss little things because they aren't flashy, but it's the little things that turn into the big things -- and it's the big things that change the universe.

Why do I think the Jazz deserve a Game 7? I think they deserve a game seven because they lost Game 6 by 1 point, and Dick Bavetta created a five point swing in favor of the road team. (And yeah, Tim Donaghy has some interesting words on this subject.)

"Now wait a second Amar, I'm Joe Big-market fan, and I've never heard of any of this. You are making serious accusations, you paranoid small market fan! I don't have to stand for this."

Take a look for yourself -- a made three pointer by Howard Eisley goes in and is waived off, a late runner by Ron Harper is counted. Jazz lost the game by 1 point, and there's a 5 point swing here during the middle of a close out game where the road team gets the benefit.

Because fate is cruel, media people from back then have kind of come around to admit how 'iffy' the entire situation is.

"So what are you saying here? You want a Game 7 and re-write history just because a ref who may or may not be a crook (according to a ref who is a crook) had his hand in two bad calls?"

No, three actually. That last shot by Jordan *was* a push off. But whatever. The entire series was messed up. The team that lost the Finals actually won the first game of the finals *and* had home court in the Finals (how likely, according to statistics, is that?). A game three blowout and historical revisionism / idolatry of Jordan blanks out what was a really close series. A series that should have had the Jazz up by 7 in Game 6 after Eisley's three in the second quarter, and up 82-77 with less than four minutes to go, instead of 79-79, after Harper's shot should have been called a 24 second clock violation. Ideally, the Jazz then would have be up 92 to 87 AFTER Jordan's heroic, photogenic shot, with the ball back with a few seconds to play.

Of course, chaos theory teaches us that if you make one little change, a million other little changes happen. (I'm looking at chaos theory here and Jurassic Park, not the Butterfly Effect and that movie with Aston Kutcher in it where he kills himself in Utero. *Spoilers*) Whatever non-determinalist method of quantum reality you ascribe to, you know, free willy or whatever it is called, the point remains that if there are some changes, other changes occur.

Are the Jazz really up by 4 points AFTER Jordan's shot, with seconds on the clock? Are they really up by 5 still if Harper's shot is waved off with 3+ mins to go? I don't know. Maybe the Jazz go on a run late? Who knows? We don't know. What I do know is that the Utah Jazz -- the team I have followed since the 1980s -- are VERY good at nursing a two+ score lead at home with little time on the clock.

I don't partake in risk taking behavior (beyond, you know, Taco Bell), so I'm not a betting man. But if this situation occurs where Eisley's three is called correctly, and Harper's shot is call correctly, I bet on the Jazz winning game 6. Even WITH His worshipfulness, His magnificence, the GOAT-despite-not-actually-being-the-GOAT Michael Jordan, on the other team I think the Jazz hold off the Bulls in Game 6.

Why? Well, the series WAS super close, and closer still if you get rid of the outlier of Game 3.

Road Team Home Team Margin Series
Game 1 Chicago 85 @ Utah 88 W 3 1 - 0
Game 2 Chicago 93 @ Utah 88 L -5 1 - 1
Game 3 Utah 54 @ Chicago 96 L -42 1 - 2
Game 4 Utah 83 @ Chicago 86 L -3 1 - 3
Game 5 Utah 83 @ Chicago 81 W 2 2 - 3
Game 6 Chicago 87 @ Utah 86 L -1 2 - 4
Game 7 Chicago @ Utah 0
Totals Chicago 528 @ Utah 482 -46
Average 88.0 80.3 -7.7
No Game 3 Chicago 432 @ Utah 428 -4
86.4 85.6 -0.8

Even with the Jazz losing 4 games the numbers don't look too bad. These were two good teams, and I think the Jazz can hold off to win Game 6 on face value of their relative strengths and how 'equal-ish' they were. Jazz won game 1 and 5 by 3 points and 2 points. Bulls won game 2, 4, and 6 by 5 points, 3 points, and 1 point. In the Jazz wins the team won by 2.5 points per game. In the Chicago wins (throwing out outlier data, but not throwing out the fact that the Bulls won fair and square, not asking for a mulligan on that one) their margin of victory is 3.0 ppg. Those are pretty close. Chicago was the better defensive team, but Utah ate up a lot of clock on offense. If the Jazz are up by 5 with the ball, with 3+ mins remaining at home . . . what I know of the Jazz tells me they win that game.

"Okay, humor me. Let's say the Jazz win Game 6. The Bulls are still going to win in Game 7. The universe isn't changed forever."

Maybe the universe isn't changed forever, and maybe the Bulls still win -- but I do think that a Game 7 changes enough things for sure. The first thing, clearly, is that the storybook ending of the Bulls could be even better than a near last second jumper over Bryon Russell. The Bulls had never played in a Finals Game 7 before, unlike so many other storied NBA Franchises (Celtics, Lakers, even the Heat have done it now). Winning a Game 7 is awesome. Winning the title is awesome. Winning in 6 is great. But there's no bigger story than a Game 7 victory for all the marbles.

That alone would have been great.

It would have also been great that Dick Bavetta would not have been eligible to ref that game too. But hey, sour grapes have a bad after taste.

But there are a few big reasons why I think things could have been a little more different than you think "IF" Utah won Game 6.

1. Karl Malone had solved Dennis Rodman

Dennis Rodman was a huge part of the Bulls defensive plan. He, combined with Brian Williams Bison Dele, really contained The Mailman in the 1997 NBA Finals. Karl played well, but didn't take over. Rodman was in his head for sure. In the '97 Finals, you could argue, Karl Malone faded away. His FT shot was off, he did manage 37 points in Game 3, but finished the series with unmistakeably poor offensive numbers. Rodman, being in Karl's head, had worked out well for the Chicago Bulls then. And using Rodman to sap up Malone's focus was working early on in the '98 Finals too. But Karl figured him out, and started to absolutely DOMINATE. We don't remember it because the media tells us only one player played in those 6 games, but check out the numbers:

Here is what Karl did game by game:

Mins PTS FGM FGA FG% FTM FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST TO A:TO STL BLK PF
Game 1 43 21 9 25 36.0% 3 4 75.0% 1 13 14 2 2 1.00 2 2 3
Game 2 39 16 5 16 31.3% 6 9 66.7% 5 7 12 4 4 1.00 0 3 5
Game 3 31 22 8 11 72.7% 6 6 100.0% 0 3 3 1 7 0.14 1 1 4
Game 4 43 21 10 21 47.6% 1 2 50.0% 6 8 14 4 4 1.00 1 0 3
Game 5 44 39 17 27 63.0% 5 6 83.3% 4 5 9 5 1 5.00 1 1 2
Game 6 43 31 11 19 57.9% 9 11 81.8% 5 6 11 7 5 1.40 1 0 2
Game 7
Totals 243 150 60 119 50.4% 30 38 78.9% 21 42 63 23 23 1.00 6 7 19
Average 40.5 25.0 10.0 19.8 5.0 6.3 3.5 7.0 10.5 3.8 3.8 1.0 1.2 3.2

Karl Finished the '98 Finals averaging 25.0 ppg (50.4 fg%), 10.5 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.2 bpg, 1.0 spg. That's not bad, in fact it's almost explicitly AVERAGE for Malone's career. (Career averages of 25.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.6 apg, 0.8 rpg, 1.4 spg in 1500 games) But he STARTED the '98 Finals pretty poorly.

That huge Game 3 loss, where the Jazz lost by 40+? Well, in that Game the Jazz only scored 54 points . . . but Karl scored 22. He scored 41% of the team's points that game. He had 7 turn overs, but it's not like he was the guy to blame.

The main point here is that Rodman (and Luc Longley) couldn't stop Malone. He got back into his groove and was killing them. If you look at the games or the boxscores they couldn't keep up, and their efforts were having diminishing returns.

  • For the first three games Karl averaged: 19.7 ppg (42.4 fg%), 9.7 rpg, 2.3 apg, (0.54 assists to 1.00 turn over), and looked like he wasn't a lead guy who could lead you to a title.
  • In the last three games (including the elimination game) Karl averaged: 30.3 ppg (56.7 fg%), 11.3 rpg, 5.4 apg (1.6 : 1.0 ratio), and continued with his steals regime.

Karl was SO GOOD in Game 6 it's a shame people only remember him for his late game turn over / Jordan steal. Karl finished that game with 31 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, and shot 82% from the free throw line. That's a LeBron James line. If Eisley's three is allowed, and Harper's two is not -- the headline is "Karl Malone near triple double powers Jazz to Game 7" and not "Amazing Michael Jordan makes big shot, wins Championship, retroactively wins WWII a second time as well because we love him so much."

Whatever mental block was preventing Karl from stepping up had been smashed to smithereens and a Game 7 at home, with the world watching, and a chance to prove all his detractors (real and or imagined) wrong -- Karl would have erupted. (Bigmarket Fans prob don't know much about how Karl was actually a really great player, and not just a "never won a title guy". Ask AC Green about his All-Star starters selection-- Karl was at his best when his head was on "kill mode".) Malone would have aimed for a third straight 30+ point game because no one on the Bulls could stop him. He would have gotten a lot of easy points too - in the three games in Chicago he went to the line 14 times total. In Game 6 at home Malone went to the line 11 times. It wouldn't have surprised me to see Karl go for 30 or 40 or more. Karl has scored 30 or more points in the playoffs 54 times, his last one coming in 2004 (6 years after this finals). Karl has scored 40 or more points in the playoffs 4 times, hanging a 50 back in 2000 (2 years after this finals). Karl was still in prime condition to go off. And I believe the momentum of finally solving Rodman would have propelled him to a career defining game.

2. John Stockton bounce-back

John Stockton rarely plays two bad games in a row. Was Game 6's 10 points, 5 assist, 3 rebound game a bad game? Yes. John started the NBA Finals with a 24 point, 8 assist game, and a Game 1 victory. He didn't get injured during the course of the series. He did shoot 7/22 in the three games in Chicago (31.8 fg%, and he still managed to shoot 49.0 fg% for the series). But Stockton, a fighter, always bounced back up.

And I think Stockton would have forced Jerry Sloan's hand into playing him more. For the series, and the season as a whole, Sloan was managing Stockton's minutes. But there's no super-secret round AFTER the NBA Finals. This was do or die. And Stock could have played more than the 32.3 mpg he was playing in the series so far.

For the record, even with his bad game 6, and poor shooting in Chicago, he still managed averages of 8.2 ppg and 8.7 apg. Against the vaunted Bulls defense he still had a 2.89 assist to turn over ratio. But he was playing only 32.3 mpg.

If John played 36 mpg, his numbers would have been 10.7 ppg, 9.7 apg, and 2.3 spg. If you boosted it up and let John play 40 minutes in a highly televised, lots of TV time-outs Game 7 . . . by his averages he could have finished with 12 and 11. That's more akin to what we're familiar with seeing, and it's nicer than the double 8s he put up in the limited time.

But the other factor here is series adjustments. John did not yet solve the Bulls defense like Karl solved Dennis. But John was on the verge of a breakout. He had the big game, the Bulls adjusted, and the longer a series goes, the greater chance for the first team to make a counter adjustment. John's shooting went away in the later three games (11.7 ppg / 66.7 fg% in first three, only 7.7 ppg / 35.7 fg% in last three) but he was helping his guys get easier buckets.

In the first three games Stockton averaged only 7.3 apg, and had an assists to turn over ratio of 2.0 to 1.0. (2:1) That's really poor. In the last three games John boosted that up to 10.0 apg, and had a 4.29 : 1.00 ratio. WOW.

If you add it all up, John (counting his passes as only to guys shooting twos, not threes) accounted for more Jazz points in Games 4,5, and 6 than he did back when he was shooting 66.7 fg% in the first three games.

John was getting the Jazz into their offense, and getting guys easier shots. That alone could help Karl get to that 30 or 40 or whatever.

Oh, if you combine things . . . and say John plays 40 mins in Game 7 (instead of the 32.3 he was playing previously -- that's not even 8 more minutes, and John was only 36 in the Finals -- he had a PER of 21.8 that season, better than Steve Nash at the same age.), and had adjusted to the Bulls defense (4.29 ast:to), he could have finished with a line of 9.0 points and 11.8 assists. How likely is that? Well, John Stockton has gone for 12 or more assists against the Bulls 21 times in his career -- and had done it 2 times in THIS VERY NBA Finals already, with them coming within the last three games. (Momentum!)

A better Karl and a better John? Is that all it takes to win a championship and re-write history?

Absolutely not, but let's not forget about

3. The absolutely dominating Utah Jazz home court advantage

Before we get too far into this, the Chicago Bulls beat Utah TWICE on their own home court in the 1998 Finals, one of them being a 1 point victory where they took away a three pointer and added a two pointer, and finished the game on a push off. But still, the Jazz lost twice in these finals alone to the Bulls. The Bulls beat Utah ONCE on their own home court in the 1997 Finals, a 2 point victory. You could argue that the Bulls don't care about playing on the road, or that Utah was an obstacle. In the three Bulls wins in Utah in the NBA Finals they won by a grand cumulative total of 8 points. Two of those games where one possession games.

A win is a win is a win. And the Bulls demonstrated that they could go .500 in Utah (the rubber match being the Game 7 that never happened). But a Bulls Game 7 victor is not something you could bank on. Utah was really good back then too, and Utah has always been great at home. (BBALL John wrote about it in '08, I did it in '11, and Andy did it in '13) Heck, Utah even gets more calls at home and gets to the line more too. You can read a little about it here, where I talk about how the Jazz "foul all the time", and look at getting to the line at home vs. the road.

But it's not even about the Bulls being a great road team, or the Jazz being adjudicated more fairly at home -- it's just about the Jazz being a dominant home team. Period.

Utah_jazz_30_year_history_-_home_vs_road

Read it all here. (N.B. Incomplete data as the Jazz ended up playing more than 14 games in '13)

A Game 7 at home, with the weight of the Jazz fans adding to the momentum of the team coming back from a humiliating Chicago trip to win the last two games in a row to set up a Game 7? The Jazz play better at home. And their two best players were playing better as the series went on. But that's not it . . .

4. Michael Jordan was doing it all alone on the Road

Michael Jordan was the best player in that series, and seriously, a 45 point close out game on the road with the game winner? That's pretty amazing. But there's a reason why Jordan had to score 45 points in a game where there was only one point between the two teams (+/-5, thanks Dick Bavetta). It's because on offense no one was stepping up to help Michael.

In the "What If" scenarios I've looked at I've looked at the trends from the games to devise my idea of what Karl and John would do. I looked at their stats. While my evaluation of how close the two teams were threw out the Game 3 blowout -- my evaluation of the Jazz home court, or their adjustments as the series have gone on, are all based upon numbers.

I'm not saying "What if Jordan missed the shot, and there was a Game 7" either, on the other hand I did look at two shots that both went in, but only one should have counted. By the actual rules of the game those situations (Eisley in, Harper out) should have been reversed. I objectively live in a world where the rules of the game shouldn't be administered in a "what if" manner.

It would be a big "What if" to expect someone to help Michael put points on the board though. There is no trend that supports it would have happened either.

What_if_game_7_-_jordan_points_percentage

In fact once you look at how Game 7 would have been played in Utah, the numbers skew even more to my side.

  • Jordan averaged 28.7 ppg in Chicago, but 38.3 ppg in Utah
  • The rest of the Bulls' starters averaged 43.7 ppg in Chicago, but only 38.7 ppg in Utah (-5.0)
  • The rest of the Bulls' team averaged 15.3 ppg in Chicago, but only 11.3 ppg in Utah (-4.0)

Those numbers kind of even out -- but they point to the shift in the Bulls playing as a better team at home towards being "Just His Airness" on the road. The numbers also seem to point out that the Jazz play better at home too. So let's not discount the location of the game completely. It's a huge deal.

Especially if Jordan comes off a 45 point game -- in a losing effort -- what does he say to his team mates before Game 7? We know Jordan was a well spoken, well loved teammate who picked his guys up when they were down and encouraged them. Oh no, wait. That was Magic Johnson. Jordan used to punch his own teammates. Hmmm.

5. The Game 7 Prediction:

"What if Game 7 was allowed to happen?" is based entirely upon the theory that if Game 6 was properly adjudicated that the Jazz would have won the game, instead of losing by 1 point at home. There were a number of things that would have changed in the game, but I feel strongly that if the Jazz were up by 5 with 3 minutes left then they would have won. I did not look up the Jazz record over that period for that situation -- but I am certain that you agree that the home team usually has the advantage, especially if they have the ball in their hands as the Jazz would have had after a Ron Harper 24 second shot clock violation.

Do the Jazz win Game 6 by a lot or little? I don't know. But I do feel that a 5 point swing in a 1 point game is, let me get my calculator out, a swing that is 5x larger than the final margin of the game. That's significant. I think that the premise for a Game 7 is valid. There very well could have been one, especially if you just do the simple math to look at the necessary required score rate of the Bulls over the last 180 seconds of the game if they were down 5 and not tied (82-77 vs 79-79) .

So what if Game 7 was a thing back in 1998?

Well, the game would be close, both teams going on runs, but the Jazz leading at the end of the first half because John Stockton was able to create easy baskets for the supporting cast (Stockton upward trend + playing at home benefit). The Bulls defense would crack down in the third quarter and Jordan would torch us, with 14 in the quarter. On the other side of the ball, Karl Malone would finish the third quarter with no less than 22 points. Jordan has 30. The Bulls and Jazz are both stumbling into the fourth quarter, but the Jazz start off with the ball because Greg Ostertag won the tip.

Which factors matter most now? Which trends continue? Which surprises happen? Does Rodman get back in Karl's head with a double technical early on in the 4th? Does Scottie Pippen or Toni Kukoc bust out of their Utah slumps and start supporting Michael if the Jazz switch their defense to get the ball out of his hands after being torched in the 3rd? Or is the crowd going crazy and the Jazz getting easy buckets -- transition dunks from Bryon Russell and Shandon Anderson off of pin-point passes from John Stockton? Is Malone's shot on of off?

Or would a fairly called Game 6 cause a paradox where Game 7 is unfairly called in favor of the Jazz, Utah wins the title, and 15 years from that date in a parallel universe a Bulls blogger is writing a "What if" story about that event?

Honestly, I don't know what would happen in a Game 7, but I do know that Jazz fans feel like we were cheated out of one. To be the champ you have to beat the champ. Playing at home, with the crowd, bringing back the momentum of the series in favor of the Jazz, withstanding a 45 point output by Jordan, and having our best players playing much better . . . let's just say that Utah would be very hard to beat in a Game 7 in 1998. And if Jordan and his greatness is pre-determined (by the stars, not the refs), then his storybook ending in a Game 7 would look that much greater than a storybook ending in Game 6.

But let's be real, Karl would score a billion points and be the Finals MVP, stay in Utah, break Kareem's record (never needing to go to the Lakers), and he would have single-highhandedly stopped Hurricane Katrina by fouling it. Also, because why not, Greg Ostertag would have somehow been elected to the U.S. Supreme Court, but still get slapped by Shaquille O'Neal and lose a contact lens. Some things you just can't change . . .

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