In May 1995, Michael Jordan had already stopped wearing No. 45. The front and back of his Chicago Bulls jersey was adorned with the 2 and the 3 — again. It was a reminder of the Michael Jordan of old — the Jordan the world knew before his baseball stint south of the Mason-Dixon line where his batting average hovered just above the Mendoza line.
But even with his old number on his chest, Jordan’s team wasn’t having the success for which that 23 was known. The Bulls fell to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It was Jordan’s first playoff series loss since he walked off the floor in Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals vs. the Detroit Pistons.
“It’s very disappointing,” Jordan said after the defeat. “I’ve got a whole summer to say what if. What if I made the jump shots down the stretch? What if I’d been here a whole season? What if I’d been here last season?”
The following year, the what-ifs had subsided. The Bulls set fire to the league during the 1995-96 season, winning an NBA-record 72 games en route to the first of three more titles. But they were closer than you think to have an even better record.
With the Golden State Warriors now threatening to break that 72-win record this season (through 62 games, they have 56 wins; the Bulls had 55), we’re taking a look back at how the 1995-96 Bulls could have really gone 75-7, if not for just a few bad breaks.
For starters, Jordan’s Bulls lost three times over the final 21 games of the season. Each of those losses was by a margin of just one point. Even more surprising: Those were the Bulls’ only three games of the regular season decided by a one-point margin. And at least two of those games involved a player with a direct tie to the present-day Warriors, who may surpass the Bulls’ record.
RAPTORS 109, BULLS 108
March 24, 1996
By the time March rolled around, Toronto had already lost to the Bulls three times in its bumpy inaugural NBA season. First, there was a pair of nine-point defeats. Then came a three-point loss in Chicago in January. Two months later, north of the border, the Raptors got their revenge.
With 24 seconds remaining, Jordan missed a driving layup that was rebounded by Toronto’s Oliver Miller, who then promptly called a timeout. One problem: The Raptors didn’t have any timeouts remaining.
As fate would have it, the Raptors were bailed out as Jordan was called for a foul prior to the timeout signal. Miller then made the first free throw and missed the second; Scottie Pippen rebounded and called a timeout. Leading to the final play…
So yeah, maybe Steve Kerr (who now coaches the Warriors now) was planning for the future with this miss? But imagine the shot and Jordan’s subsequent rebound had come just a few tenths of second earlier. Jordan’s final bucket would have counted and the Bulls would have win No. 73. A cruel twist from the clock.
HORNETS 98, BULLS 97
April 8, 1996
The Bulls’ mastery at United Center had spanned 44 games (an NBA record for consecutive home wins until the mark was surpassed by the Warriors on Monday night), with Chicago’s last home loss on March 24, 1995 to the same team that would oust them from the postseason two months later — the Magic.
Then the Hornets came to town.
Charlotte star Larry Johnson played just 23 minutes with a nagging hand injury and scored just eight points. Off the bench came — who else? — Dell Curry. Yes, that Dell Curry. The father of Stephen Curry, who had just turned 8 years old March 24. And on this night, the elder Curry was the hero for the Hornets He scored 19 points and hit the final two free throws to give Charlotte the 98-97 lead prior to the Bulls’ final possession.
In case you are keeping count, that is two straight Bulls defeats, by one point, in the final seconds, involving the Warriors’ current coach and the father of the best basketball player on the planet right now — who plays for the Warriors. Eerie.
PACERS 100, BULLS 99
April 20, 1996
Nearly two years before this game, NBA referee Hue Hollins made probably the most memorable questionable call in the history of the Bulls franchise. And 23 months later, with .05 seconds remaining vs. the Pacers, Hollins called No. 23 for maybe the second most memorable questionable call.
However, it might not have mattered the second time had Jordan made this jumper with seven seconds remaining.
The Pacers pushed the ball up court to Eddie Johnson. He had made one bucket in 12 minutes prior to his final attempt.
The foul sent Johnson to the line, who made just one of two free throws for the win.
And in case you’re wondering, no, Johnson didn’t every play for or coach the Warriors. He was actually born in Chicago. So much for our Warriors connections.
Back to 2016: If Golden State is perfect in its final 21 games, its 76 wins would top even this hypothetical win total by the Bulls. So “what if” wouldn’t even matter.
But perhaps the biggest “what if” to take away from all of this: What if Pippen hadn’t shot 12-of-35 combined (28 total points) in those three Bulls defeats? Then there wouldn’t be a need for those two, nagging words.