Michael Jordan's Bulls showed Larry Bird's Celtics who's boss 25 years ago

Less than four months after the Bulls throttled Larry Bird's Celtics in Chicago, Michael Jordan was celebrating the first of his six NBA championships. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

The date was Feb. 26, 1991. The teams with the two best records in the Eastern Conference -- the Chicago Bulls (39-14) and Boston Celtics (40-14) -- were squaring off, and it was a tough ticket.

Scalpers outside Chicago Stadium were reportedly asking for $300, a lot of money for a regular-season game 25 years ago.

Those who secured tickets that night witnessed a blowout that was a landmark stepping-stone in the rise of a Bulls dynasty that would claim six of the next eight NBA titles. Michael Smith, a Celtics center that season, remembers the game being "like a changing of the guard."

"It was almost like, at that point, we knew," he said. "I would equate it to what the rest of the league is experiencing with the Golden State Warriors. You can try to stop them, but you could see that something was brewing over there."

It was Michael Jordan's seventh NBA season. The Celtics or Detroit Pistons had been the Eastern Conference champions each season since Jordan entered the league. The Bulls had reached the conference finals the previous two seasons but hadn't broken through.

On Feb. 7, 1991, the last game before the All-Star break, Chicago beat the back-to-back NBA champion Pistons by two points. It was only the second win for the Bulls in their 14 games (including playoffs) at the Palace of Auburn Hills since it opened in 1988.

"The one thing I remember specifically was coming back after the All-Star break, the confidence that we had as a team when we got back together," Bulls backup center Will Perdue said.

Chicago scored 129 points in each of the two games leading up to the showdown against Boston. The Celtics, meanwhile came in without Kevin McHale, who had a sprained ankle. Still, the remaining two-thirds of their aging big three -- Larry Bird and Robert Parish -- made them formidable.

Even though the teams were statistically well-matched, Celtics legend Bob Cousy, doing play-by-play on the local Boston affiliate, saw trouble ahead.

"T," he said to play-by-play partner Tommy Heinsohn, "I got bad vibes about this one, baby."

It was a good call. After one quarter, the box score looked like this: Scottie Pippen 13, Celtics 12. The Bulls had a 21-point lead.

After a reverse layup by Jordan in the second quarter, Cousy -- who had called Jordan's 63-point performance at the Boston Garden in 1986 -- raved about the Bulls' superstar.

"I've seen quite a bit of Jordan," Cousy said. "I don't think I've ever seen him have as productive all-around a half as he has against the Celtics."

By halftime, Jordan had 28 points, and the Bulls were sitting on an impressive 74-48 lead. The domination continued in the second half, and the Celtics broadcast crew acknowledged that the Bulls were the team that deserved to be atop the Eastern Conference standings.

"This team here looks much more potent and aggressive than the Pistons," Heinsohn said as Chicago went up 115-76 in the fourth quarter.

The final: 129-99. Jordan finished with 39, and Pippen had 33. The 30-point margin was the Bulls' largest over Boston in the 25 years the teams had been playing. It was Chicago's 10th straight win and 19th straight at home.

"And there's new a top dog in the NBA East," Bulls broadcaster Jim Durham said. "It's Michael Jordan and the Bulls as they move ahead of Boston."

In the Bulls' locker room, the feeling of the domination was palpable.

"In my opinion, we have a championship team," Pippen said after the game. "Sure, there will be nights I won't have a good game. But somebody else will step in. That's the way it has been."

Asked about it 25 years later, Perdue said the win over the Celtics was a confidence-booster.

"We were still working on the triangle offense, and a big win like that, at that point in the season, meant a lot for us -- more mentally than anything else," he said. "We had a talented team with Michael, Scottie, Horace [Grant] and Pax [John Paxson]. We obviously had the talent, but we had not developed the mental toughness that [coach] Phil Jackson was looking for."

When approached by Chicago Tribune writer Sam Smith that night, Bird said, "The Bulls are the best team I've ever seen."

Today, Smith says he believes Bird wasn't 100 percent sincere: "My thought is that Larry hated the Pistons so much that he'd do anything to take a jab at them."

Perhaps Bird was being irrational after being held to 12 points. But others saw the Bulls' greatness too. Michael Smith, the backup Celtics center who got more playing time than usual after Parish took a seat early in the third, remembers being impressed.

"There was a look in their eyes, like, 'You don't have a chance against us,' and we didn't," he said. "I never saw that in our guys before. With Bird, McHale and Parish, there was never a time when we looked overmatched or overwhelmed. I'll never forget Bird had 12 points in that game. I mean, Bird got 20 in his sleep."

The Bulls won 36 of their next 45 games (including the postseason) and won their first championship. The stage was set for one of the most dominant runs in NBA history.