With one shot, Michael Jordan proved why he should never be doubted again.
Just three seconds and one point stood in the way of Chicago advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals in 1989 and there was little question about the Bulls scheme coming off a timeout.
Jordan had already torched Cleveland for 197 points during the five game series, and if he sank this one shot, he would clearly establish himself as the most dangerous player in the league.
By the time the 1989 playoffs began, Jordan had already achieved enough individual success to make him the most popular player in the league.
The 25-year-old had won his third consecutive scoring title, averaging 32.5 points per game, had won the 1984-85 Rookie of the Year, had been named to five All-Star games, won the Defensive Player of the Year and MVP award in 1987-88.
For the second time in three years, Jordan guided the Bulls to 50 win seasons, all Chicago was looking for was some playoff suceess.
Founded in 1966, the Bulls had only made two trips to the conference finals in franchise history. Prior to Jordan’s arrival, Chicago had only made two post season appearances in nine years.
For all of his individual accolades, Jordan had only won a single playoff series in his career prior to the 1989 playoffs.
Chicago finished 47-35, including a home loss to the Cavaliers to conclude the regular season. The Bulls lost all six meetings to Cleveland, coming off a franchise-high 57 win year.
The Bulls needed a 31 point, 11 rebound, five assist effort from Jordan in the series opener to finally defeat the Cavaliers.
The two teams alternated victories over the first four games. As the series progressed, Jordan’s scoring numbers soared. He led the Bulls to a 101-94 Game 3 victory in Chicago with 44 points.
Despite scoring 50 points, Jordan missed an opportunity to advance by missing some key free throws during a 108-105 overtime loss in Game 4.
When the series shifted back to Cleveland, the Bulls faced an uphill battle as the Cavaliers posted a 37-4 record at the Coliseum at Richfield.
The majority of Chicago’s offense involved clearing out for Jordan and letting him create his own shot. With less than 30 seconds remaining, Jordan totaled 40 points, nine rebounds and six assists, but it wasn’t enough to pull away from Cleveland.
A three-pointer Craig Ehlo briefly put the Cavaliers ahead 98-97 with 19 seconds remaining.
Scottie Pippen raced up court with the ball and briefly set up the offense.
Jordan dashed to the three-point line and received a pass from Pippen. He quickly accelerated past Ehlo and sank a 10-foot jumper from the right side over the out-stretched arms of Brad Daugherty.
His shot put Chicago ahead 99-98 with six seconds remaining.
Ehlo in-bounded the ball from half court to Larry Nance and quickly received it back on a bounce pass. Uncontested, he attacked the rim and put the Cavaliers back in front 100-99 with three seconds remaining with an off-balanced layup.
Playing on a hurt ankle, Ehlo scored his 22nd point of the game and he hobbled back to the bench following a Chicago timeout. Ehlo’s 15 points in the fourth quarter marked one of the finest post season performances in franchise history.
With one opportunity left, the obvious play for Chicago was to clear out for Jordan.
Brad Sellers found Jordan alone at the wing, a crossover dribble briefly shook Ehlo off him and he sprinted towards the foul line. As Jordan went up for the shot, Ehlo darted in front of him, Jordan adjusted his shot in midair, hung for an extra second as the defender ran past and he released it.
Once the ball left his finger tips, there was little question if it was going through the net. As the final buzzer sounded, the shot rattled through the rim and Chicago knocked off its Central Division rivals.
All alone, Jordan frantically celebrated by jumping in the air and pumping his fist. Ehlo limped towards the sideline, forever entrenched in the most iconic moment of Jordan’s career. He crumbled on the sideline as the Bulls engulfed Jordan in celebration.
30 of Jordan’s 42 points came in the second half, most importantly, any questions of his ability to carry a team in the post season were answered.
In six of his 17 playoff games in 1989, Jordan finished with at least 40 points. Even though his team fell to Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals, Jordan stood alone as the best player in the league.
From that moment on, Jordan owned the Cavaliers. The Bulls eliminated Cleveland in each of the next three post season meetings en route to a championship. It all began with his jumper over Ehlo.
One shot had vanished any rumblings about his leadership, his selfishness and ability to come through when it mattered.
After sinking his shot to give Chicago the win, Jordan wasn’t just celebrating alone, he entered a class all by himself.