"He's the best superstar defender in the history of the game," LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers says. As a player, Rivers often experienced the misfortune of trying to bring the ball up the floor with Jordan tracking him end line to end line.
Usually, "imposing his will" referred to Jordan's gravity-defying dunks or artistic layups in traffic. But it also applies to the countless times he jumped passing lanes, blocked shots of 7-footers or merely saddled up so far into the grill of perimeter shooters that they could literally smell his sweat. Jordan is the only player since 1973-74 (when steals and blocks were first recorded) to submit 200 steals and 100 blocks in two different seasons. Scottie Pippen and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only other players to reach that milestone once.
"In my mind, Michael was actually a defensive player who also happened to be an exceptionally talented offensive player," says B.J. Armstrong, his former Bulls teammate. "In many ways, he knew the game on that side of the ball better. The way he moved, anticipated and invented ways to score based off what he saw on the defensive end ... he never cheated the process."
Jordan's defensive acumen was apparent in real time; he was selected first team All-Defense on nine occasions, tied with Gary Payton, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant for most ever. And during the Bulls' three-year title run featuring Jordan, Pippen and Dennis Rodman, Chicago led the league in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Bulls were perpetually on a seek-and-destroy defensive mission, aiming not just to disrupt their opponents' offensive sets but to ultimately leave them in disarray.
And no one relished that assignment more than Jordan.
"I've always thought players who talk trash defensively are far more devastating than the scorers who say stuff," Rivers says. "Michael would say, 'I know what you want to do, you're not going right at all today.' And for me, that was tough, because I was always going right."
Jordan fastidiously studied the offensive sets of opponents and committed them to memory. He expected his teammates to do the same. Missing a shot was acceptable, but if you missed a defensive assignment, you would incur the wrath of His Airness.
"All anyone wants to talk about with the Bulls is the triangle. And that's fine, I have nothing against that," says Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who played against Jordan in the 1992 NBA Finals with the Portland Trail Blazers and again the following year with the Phoenix Suns. "But it was the defense that made Chicago special. We could not score against them in the last five minutes of Game 6 [in 1993].
"Charles Barkley was the MVP of the league that year and Michael just loved the challenge of shutting him down. It was personal. He was going to make sure that no one could ever think they were in his category. Not Charles, not Clyde [Drexler], not anyone."
Michael Jordan shows off his instincts as he helps on defense and rejects Patrick Ewing's shot out of bounds.
JORDAN DIDN'T MAKE his first All-Defense team until the 1987-88 season, his fourth year in the league. He led the league in steals and was 14th in blocks -- the only guard in the top 40 that season.
"He got me a couple of times," says former New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing. "The thing about him and Scottie was they were big enough, strong enough and athletic enough to challenge a guy like me. Michael could take that initial bump. Most guys couldn't or didn't want to absorb the contact. He didn't care."
Jordan habitually was knocked to the floor by the team he loathed most, the Detroit Pistons, who punctured his title dreams for three consecutive seasons with a physical, defensive-oriented style. But in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, Jordan turned the tables on the Bad Boys.
In that series, Detroit averaged just 0.79 points per play with Jordan as the primary defender, and shot just 35%, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. Jordan relentlessly tracked guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, pickpocketing them in the backcourt or springing out of his low defensive stance with catlike quickness to flood their passing lanes.
"Michael had very quick hands," Rivers says. "And he was very smart in how he used them. The more athletic and dominant you are, the less people give you credit for your intelligence. It's funny, [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson], neither of them was a super athlete, so we gave them all this credit for their brains. Well, Michael was just as clever.
"That, combined with his athleticism, made him a suffocating defender. You're bringing the ball up thinking, 'Man, is this guy even going to let me get over half court?' It was unbearable."
In the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, Michael Jordan gets a series of steals and blocks en route to the Bulls' first-ever NBA Finals appearance.
In 1992, Ainge finished the season with Portland. Jordan was in town as a member of the Dream Team to play exhibition games in the Tournament of the Americas. The two hit the links for 36 holes the morning of Team USA's first game against Cuba. When they were finished, Ainge hustled to drop the league MVP at the hotel so Jordan could quickly shower and join the Olympic team on the bus.
"I get to the game," Ainge says, "and I'm beat. The sun was really hot that day. I'm sitting there watching Michael, and he was just unbelievable. He was picking up guys full court on every possession for the entire 30 minutes he played. I couldn't believe how much energy he had.
"We played golf the next day, too, and I asked him, 'Why were you playing so hard in an exhibition game?' And he told me, 'I don't want anyone thinking they belong on the court with me.'"
IN HIS FINAL season with the Bulls, Jordan's ability to alter a game defensively was still on display at 35 years old. He finished fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting behind Dikembe Mutombo, Payton and David Robinson -- 10 years after his first and only DPOY award.
Antoine Walker experienced his forcefulness on opening night of the 1997-98 season. The Celtics forward was en route to a 31-point night with Jason Caffey and Scott Burrell drawing the assignment for much of the game. An exasperated Jordan, who missed 16 of his 23 shots in that game, waved off his teammates and guarded Walker for the final minutes.
"He told me he was going to shut me down," Walker says, "but it was too late. We won the game. We were celebrating in the hallway afterwards and Michael saw me. He said, 'You'll never beat us again.'
"And we didn't."
After sweeping the New Jersey Nets in the opening round of the 1998 playoffs, the Bulls beat Charlotte in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, but Hornets coach Dave Cowens made an adjustment. Cowens knew the triangle provided Jordan and Pippen post-ups 6 to 7 feet from the basket, which both players favored, so he put bruising power forward Anthony Mason, his best post defender, on Jordan. This required Jordan to track Mason defensively in transition.
The other adjustment the Hornets made was to position sharpshooters Glen Rice and Dell Curry on the same side of the floor offensively, so Pippen and Jordan would skew to that side to guard them. That left the Hornets the other half of the floor to run pick-and-roll without interference from the Bulls' defensive stars. Charlotte stunned Chicago in Game 2, 78-76.
"Michael knew exactly what we were doing," says Armstrong, who was a reserve on that Hornets team. "So when I checked in during Game 3, he immediately said, 'I'll take him.' Now, I wasn't one of our primary offensive threats, but Jordan understood we were trying to keep him away from the ball. What better way to keep track of the ball than guarding the guy with the ball?
"I'm pretty sure he made that adjustment himself. The guy's attention to detail was impeccable. People were wondering, 'Why is Jordan guarding the backup point guard on this team?' Because those are the little differences between winning and losing."
The Hornets didn't win another game in the series.
The Bulls advanced to play the Indiana Pacers in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals, triggering sour memories for point guard Mark Jackson, who previously had battled Chicago while he was a member of the Knicks. Jackson warned his Pacers teammates about Jordan's uncommon defensive resolve.
"You'd beat him with a move," Jackson says, "and before you know it, he was right back there in front of you. His recovery skills were exceptional."
The Bulls put Pippen on Jackson to prevent him from posting up. Jordan matched up with, among others, Reggie Miller, an assignment he once complained was like "chicken-fighting with a woman" because of Miller's slender frame. Miller, a legendary trash-talker, objected, dishing barbs of his own.
"I think Reggie got under Michael's skin," Jackson says. "Reggie had great respect for Michael, but he wasn't afraid. Michael's saying, 'I'm going to lock you up,' but we countered with, 'It's not just you and Reggie. It's you, Reggie and the 100 picks we're going to set for him.'" Miller rejoiced when his famous "push-off" game-winning jumper over Jordan fell through in Game 4, but Jordan and the Bulls had the final say, holding Miller to just one shot in the fourth quarter of the series-deciding Game 7.
"Their defense," Pacers coach Larry Bird said in the immediate aftermath of the loss, "is relentless."
Michael Jordan doubles Karl Malone in the post and comes up with a steal before sinking an iconic game-winning shot to capture the 1998 NBA championship.
MICHAEL JORDAN HYPERBOLE is at an all-time high as "The Last Dance" nears its conclusion, and one favorite mantra is that No. 23 never took a play off on either end. Ainge says that's not entirely accurate.
"When he was averaging 38 a game, and even later, when he 'slowed down' to 30 a game, Michael was still talented enough, savvy enough and prepared enough not to exert too much energy defensively," Ainge says. "I liken it to a five-speed car. He could play in third gear and be better than most. And, when he shifted into that fifth gear, which he did at the end of games, he was Scottie-like."
In June 1998, as Jordan's career in Chicago dwindled to its final days, he challenged his teammates to close out their "last dance" by dominating the game on the defensive end. Chicago's opponent, the Utah Jazz, led the NBA in offensive efficiency during the regular season (110.9 points per 100 possession), but was held to just 94.3 in those 1998 Finals. If you combine the 1997 and 1998 Finals, the Jazz failed to score 90 points in 11 of the 12 games they played.
Jordan ended his career with the Bulls in poetic fashion: nailing the game-winning jumper over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the Finals, his shooting motion frozen in time. It's an unforgettable image, but what people often fail to remember is how the Bulls first got possession.
Seconds earlier, John Stockton had dumped the ball into Karl Malone in the post. Rodman was denying him on the left side when Jordan burst from behind on the right, swatting the ball free and taking off up the court to make history -- again.
That's right. Jordan's most iconic moment was the result of his defense.