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23 times that MJ, like LeBron, did not take The Shot
Michael Jordan deferred. Many times. But it was pre-Internet.
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On Monday night, LeBron James made a beautiful pass in traffic to a wide-open teammate in the closing seconds. His teammate missed. LeBron’s team lost.
For the entirety of my adult life, I have heard on-air pundits crush LeBron for making the right basketball play like Monday’s, often in the service of Michael Jordan myth-making (and often Kobe Bryant, too).
Right on cue, in came Skip Bayless, who has made a nice living by cutting LeBron down at most every turn. His reaction on X on Monday night:
I told myself I wouldn’t take the bait, but alas, here I am. I’m on a mission here at The Finder to bust some treasured myths and I have a golden opportunity here to set the record straight. With the way some public-facing analysts talk about Michael Jordan, an impressionable audience might come away with the notion that he never missed a clutch shot, never passed up an opportunity to shoot the big one and also walked on water.
In reality, Jordan came up short plenty of times in the clutch. A rough estimate suggests he failed on about 60 percent of potential game-winning shots. Most of the time, it didn’t work out for him.
What today’s post is about: MJ also deferred, like LeBron did on Monday, quite a bit.
I know! Hard to believe with the Baylesses of the world preaching the Jordan gospel and trafficking in absolutes and certainties. All I know is Michael takes that shot.
Would he? In sports, we take things like Jordan’s clutch inevitability as articles of faith. Here at The Finder, I won’t settle for that and my readers shouldn’t either. Especially in light of thrilling/self-serving The Last Dance documentary, it may be difficult to accept the suggestion that Jordan failed or deferred in any capacity.
But sometimes, I find, seeing is believing.
So here are the many examples of times that Michael Jordan passed up the game-winning shot or let someone else take it. To be clear, this post is not blaming Jordan for not taking the shot or celebrating him for making the right basketball play.
It is my intent that this post serves as a reality check, a necessary tonic to deaden the delusional influence of Jordan propaganda — such as the one above. Please send to all your friends that need a healthy dose of historical evidence (and subscribe!).
Let’s get to it.
8 Game-winners That Michael Didn’t Take
John Paxson | Apr 7, 1990 | CHI 109, DAL 108
Hold on, there was another Paxson game-winner from MJ? You betcha. This one came in 1990, three years before the more famous Finals one. On this play, Derek Harper left Paxson to double-team a 27-year-old Jordan along the sideline. Paxson raised his hands in the air calling for the ball.
At this point in Jordan’s career, he had won three scoring titles and made five trips to the postseason. He already ranked among the all-time best scorers. With 43 points in the game, Jordan had every reason to keep firing them up and yet, he – gasp! – passed it. He made the right play!
Here was the call:
“Two point lead for Dallas. Gotta get it inbounds! Horace Grant comes into Jordan. Michael Jordan against Blackmon. Three seconds, crosscourt to Paxson, he delivers the long one … GOOOOOOD!! The Bulls wiiiiiiin … hoooo HOOO!!!!!!!”
At this point in their respective careers, Paxson and Jordan shared the same number of game-winners to their name: 1. Hard to believe, huh?
Jerry Stackhouse | Nov 8, 2002 | WAS 100, LAL 99
The game was basically over, but Jordan let Kobe Bryant and the Lakers back in it. Up three with 18 seconds left on ESPN, the Wizards shuffled the ball to Jordan, and the Lakers had no choice but to send MJ to the line. Jordan missed two of the four free throws. Brian Shaw and Robert Horry took advantage and each hit a clutch 3-pointer to give the Lakers a one-point lead with 2.9 seconds left.
With the game on the line, Jordan sat back and let Jerry Stackhouse do the work. The younger Tar Heel inbounded the ball to Byron Russell, who tossed it right back to Stackhouse. Jordan was parked on the other side of the floor, giving Stackhouse a wide-open lane to throw it down. As the clock ticked down, Stackhouse dunked the ball at the buzzer and rescued the Wizards from heartbreak.
"I missed my free throws – he saved me tonight,'' Jordan said after the game. "I was more or less a decoy.''
Miss clutch free throws? Be a decoy? WITH KOBE BRYANT AND PHIL JACKSON LOOKING ON? MJ would never! Wait, a minute.
Scottie Pippen | Nov 14, 1989 | CHI 96, SAC 94
The Kings double-teamed MJ on the right wing and seemed to have him cornered. As the clock ticked down to zero, Pippen cut baseline and Jordan threw him the lob. Pippen laid it in at the buzzer. Game over.
Pippen was ice cold in this game, missing 13 of his 19 shots. Jordan posted 27 points and had plenty of momentum to hoist a tough shot instead of feeding Pippen. But he passed up the last shot. And the Bulls won.
How about that.
Scottie Pippen | Dec 29, 1988 | NYK 106, CHI 108
Technically, Jordan tried to take the shot. It just didn’t work. With the game tied on the final possession, MJ got blocked in the lane by Knicks center Patrick Ewing.
A moment later, Horace Grant came up with the ball and missed the layup. With time running out, the live ball popped out to Scottie Pippen at the free throw line and he hit the dagger.
“It’s a player’s dream to hit a winning shot like that, Pippen told Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune. “It’s a great feeling.”
Jordan did not get fouled or sent to the line. Sorry, Skip.
John Paxson | Game 6 NBA Finals, Jun 20, 1993 | CHI 99, PHX 98
Jordan would never pass up the opportunity to win a championship with a single shot? Well, in the 1993 Finals, he did.
With a chance to end the Suns’ season – the ultimate kill shot for a player – Jordan delegated before even crossing halfcourt.
Dribbling up the floor with full-court, single-man coverage, Jordan was on the run and dished it to Scottie Pippen in the middle of the floor. Pippen dumped it to Horace Grant who swung it to a wide-open Paxson. Swish. Game over. Season over.
Here was Marv Albert and Mike Fratello on the call.
MA: The Suns by two. It has come down to this possession.
MF: They want Michael to get a full head of steam, try to keep him in the middle of the floor.
MA: Well, Pippen got the step! Here’s Paxson for 3! Yes! The Bulls take a one-point lead!
“All I know is Michael takes that shot.” Riiiight.
Steve Kerr | 1997 NBA Finals Game 6, Jun 13, 1997 | UTA 86, CHI 90
Bulls up 3-2 in the series. Score tied, just 28 seconds left in Chicago. Footage showed the late timeout, Kerr telling Jordan: “If he comes off, I’ll be ready.”
Sure enough, Jordan drove, got swarmed, kicked it out to Kerr. He was ready. Bucket. Five seconds left. On the final play, Pippen stole the ball, flipped it to the streaking Kukoc who dunked it for the clincher. Doesn’t get much better than that.
That led to the famous speech when Kerr took to the podium at the championship parade and got off his jokes: “In the huddle, Phil told Michael, he said, ‘Michael I want you to take the last shot.’ Michael said, ‘You know Phil, I don’t feel comfortable in these situations. So maybe we oughta go in another direction. Why don’t we go to Steve?’ So I thought to myself, well I guess I gotta bail Michael out again. The shot went in and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!”
Scottie Pippen | April 30, 1997 | CHI 96, WAS 95
This was Game 3 of the first-round of the playoffs. After Jordan hit a jumper with 1:12 left, Dick Stockton with the call: “Michael Jordan, phenomenal! With 28 points he has taken over AGAIN. He is not to be denied. And with the way he plays, he will not let the Bulls lose.”
Later, down one in the closing seconds, Jordan got denied – and almost let the Bulls lose. He drove against Calbert Cheaney, prompting Tracy Murray to come over to double him and Jordan got blocked. Luckily, after losing the ball, it trickled out to Pippen who drove baseline and dunked a powerful and-one, falling flat on his back with seven seconds left. Bulls win.
Toni Kukoc, Jason Caffey | Jan 23, 1998 | CHI 100, NJN 98
With 50 seconds left in a tie game, Jordan missed a jumper and Pippen tipped it in. Sam Cassell answered with a layup. They fouled Jordan, he hits two free throws to go up 2. Cassell answers again with a jumper. Bulls call timeout with 1 second left. Kukoc, not Jordan, missed the game-winner.
In overtime, game tied 100-100, the Bulls iced the game by having Kukoc throw an alley-oop to Jason Caffey at the buzzer and Keith Van Horn ran from the bench to goaltend it. What? Yeah, it got weird.
Here’s the Chicago Tribune writeup:
No mention of Jordan. It’s true. He led the game with 32 points but was absent on the go-ahead plays.
“We got a break at the end,” Phil Jackson said. “The coaches were telling me what a great play I ran, and Michael came in and said they only had four guys on the floor.”
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15 Final Possession Shots That MJ Didn’t Take
Luc Longley, Toni Kukoc, Scottie Pippen | Game 1, 1998 NBA Finals June 3, 1998 | CHI 85, UTA 88
Jordan’s game-winner in Game 6 was so iconic that it erased all of MJ’s clutch miscues from Game 1. With the clock winding down in regulation, Jordan missed the potential game-tying jumper on the right baseline. Scottie Pippen rescued the Bulls by grabbing the offensive rebound and calling timeout. On the call:
“(Jordan) lives for moments like this! You can bet it won’t be the last time he touches it.”
Sure enough, with the game hanging in the balance, Jordan drove and rose up for the jumper and …. dished it to Luc Longley, who laid it in for the tie. Fourteen seconds left.
Here’s Doug Collins on the replay:
“Michael Jordan makes a great pass to Luc Longley! Remember he trusted him in Indiana and he hit a big shot. So Michael comes over, he gets the double coverage, he finds Luc Longley, who makes a TOUGH shot. As he goes back down the floor, he looks over at Michael and says, ‘Michael, nice pass.’ Michael goes, “No. Better finish.”
That’s adorable. He trusted him. LeBron would have been roasted for that.
In overtime, MJ turned the ball over, taking too long to make his post move and got whistled for a shot clock violation. A few beats later, with 35 seconds left, Jordan passed it to Pippen and played off the ball. A few moments later, Longley lost his dribble. Turnover. Stockton scored on the next play.
Down four with less than eight seconds, Jordan passed up another opportunity and flipped the ball to Toni Kukoc who hit a 3-pointer to bring it within one. Stockton hit two free throws.
On the final possession, down three, Jordan deferred, tipping the ball to Pippen for a desperation 3-pointer that rimmed out. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Jordan missed more shots than he made from the floor, got hit with the shot clock violation and missed two key free throws late. In the NBA Finals. He passed up a few key shots, too. Erased from the conversation.
Dennis Rodman | Nov 20, 1997 | CHI 85, PHO 89
Down one with 20 seconds left, Jordan drove the lane with an opportunity to take the lead and passed it up, dumping the ball to Dennis Rodman by the rim. Rodman missed the gimmie with 19 seconds left in the game.
Jordan missed the next two jumpers – one for the tie, one to make it a one possession game. Dallas won the game by four.
Christian Laettner | Nov 24, 2001 | BOS 84, WAS 88
Haven’t found video of this historic event.
A 38-year-old Jordan missed his final six shots in this one and turned the ball over with 48 seconds left in overtime. On the next possession, with the game tied with 28 seconds left, Jordan pulled down a rebound and the Wizards set off to take the lead. With 8.6 seconds left, it was Laettner, not MJ, who cashed a 17-foot, go-ahead jumper, set up by Rip Hamilton.
On the following Celtics possession, Hamilton stole the ball from Joe Johnson and hit the next four free throws to ice the game.
Shockingly, the Jordan Wizards era didn’t have nearly as much film on the Internet as the Jordan Bulls era. I did find a Boston Globe clipping that contained some Jordan quotes talking about his age-related fatigue. For reference, LeBron is now a few weeks older than Jordan was when he told the Boston press:
“I felt it especially toward the end of the game. I mean I just didn’t have the legs, the lift. You know at the end of the game when everyone stopped to look to me to carry the load. Most of the defense knew that focus and came straight at me. I kept trying to move the ball around and find everybody else some shots.”
All I know is that Michael takes that shot.
Scottie Pippen | April 19, 1997 | NYK 103, CHI 101
With 70 wins within grasp in the regular-season finale, Jordan missed a go-ahead jumper with 1:01 remaining in the game. Next possession Pippen hit two free throws to make it a two point game. Final possession, down two with 13 seconds left, Jordan drove into the paint against John Starks, kicked out to Steve Kerr in the right corner with only three seconds left. Kerr swung it to Pippen for the open game-winner. Pippen missed. Knicks win.
“I could have easily shot the ball, but I felt [Kerr] was wide open. He made the decision to pass to Scottie.”
Something tells me he wanted Kerr to shoot it. Here’s the Chicago Tribune sports page the next day:
How refreshing. Nothing about MJ being a choker or chastising him for deferring.
Toni Kukoc | April 24, 1998 | NJN 93, CHI 96
First round of the 1998 playoffs, Jordan went to the line with 39 seconds left, down one. Made the first to tie the game. Missed the second. Nets have an opportunity to go ahead.
Kerry Kittles missed a jumper and the ball went out of bounds, Bulls ball. Steve Kerr checked in. Pippen, not Jordan, dribbled the ball and tried to get it to MJ, but was denied by Kittles.
With Jordan locked up, Pippen pivoted to Kukoc who hoisted an errant 3-pointer at the buzzer.
In overtime, Jordan went 1-of-3 from the floor and 3-of-5 at the line with a turnover. Nets shot 2-of-11. Ballgame, Bulls won by three.
Ty Lue, Kwame Brown | Apr 9, 2003 | BOS 87, WAS 83
Haven’t found video of this historic event.
With a week left in the season, Jordan was fighting for a playoff spot in what would be his final season. At 36-41, the Wizards still had a chance to break into the playoff field and the 41-36 Boston Celtics were a winnable game.
Down one with two minutes left, Jordan made a layup at the rim after a feed from Ty Lue. Jordan never took another shot the rest of the game. Instead, in the final minute of a one-possession game, it was Kwame Brown (missed two) and Lue who ended up with field goal attempts. Brown actually outscored Jordan in the final frame.
Coming out of a Wizards timeout, the final possession resulted in a Lue missed nine-foot jumper and the tip-in from Brown didn’t go down. Jordan and the Wizards got beat by J.R. Bremer in this one.
“We did everything we could to keep their big two (Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker) out, and he stepped in and hurt us,” Jordan said after the game.
The game report said the Wizards simply couldn’t get the ball to Jordan down the stretch. Nothing in the article said anything about Jordan deferring or failing to will himself to victory. You know, because that’s okay, sometimes. Even when a playoff spot is on the line.
Toni Kukoc | Mar 12, 1998 | CHI 97, DAL 104
Up four with 15 seconds left, Jordan went to the line to ice it. Made the first, missed the second. Down 5 with 10 seconds left, the 13-49 Mavericks miraculously closed the gap with a Hubert Davis two and Cedric Ceballos hail-mary three.
With a chance to win, the Mavs doubled Jordan on the inbounds pass, forcing the Bulls to go elsewhere. Instead of Jordan chasing the ball, he watched as Kukoc drove into the paint and missed a floater. Overtime. The Mavs would go onto win 104-97 as Jordan missed three of his four shots from the floor and split his two free throws.
If you want to see for yourself, the Mavericks posted a funny watch-along of a Don Nelson watch-along on YouTube.
Ron Harper | Mar 18, 1997 | SEA 87, CHI 89
Game tied at 78, 20 seconds left … game goes into overtime. The clip above doesn’t show the play. Hunh.
The play-by-play says Ron Harper missed a layup with one second left. Don’t have much more than that, unfortunately.
The game report from Chicago Tribune: “Jordan figured the game shouldn’t have gone into overtime, anyway. That’s because the Bulls, who trailed from the opening tip, took a 78-75 lead before Luc Longley was whistled for fouling Payton from three-point land with :20.8 left. Payton hit all three free throws and the Bulls failed to get off a decent game-winning shot.”
I guess we’ll never know.
Toni Kukoc | Dec 12, 1997 | CHI 77, CHA 79
Down two points with five seconds, Jordan played decoy again. The Bulls inbounded to Toni Kukoc who tried to create separation from his defender in Charlotte and fired up a long three. Didn’t go in.
Jordan didn’t really try to get the ball. Kukoc scored six of the final eight points of the game and Jordan let him run with the hot hand. LeBron surely would have gotten criticized for not taking over when it mattered most.
Toni Kukoc | Nov 25, 1997 | CHI 90, SEA 91
Up three with 52 seconds left in the game, Jordan missed an opportunity to make it a two-possession game, clanking his free throw to keep it 90-87. On the next play, Detlef Schrempf made two free throws to cut the lead to one. Next Bulls possession: Randy Brown miss. Supersonics big Vin Baker made a jumper to take the lead with three seconds left.
On the final play, Kukoc did a little give and go, passing it into Jud Buechler and getting it back, only to be blocked by Baker on a 3-pointer. At the last moment, MJ ran toward Kukoc calling for the ball (at the top of the key. Blurry, I know), but it was too late. Supersonics win.
Jerry Stackhouse | Mar 18, 2003 | DET 94, WAS 90
Haven’t found video of this historic event.
Going against former Wizard Rip Hamilton and the star-studded Detroit Pistons, the Wizards lost steam down the stretch. Pistons center Ben Wallace blocked Jordan’s final shot with 32.1 seconds left in overtime, with the Wizards down three, and sniped Jordan’s pass in the closing seconds of the 94-90 Wizards loss.
Before that, at the end of regulation, Stackhouse missed the potential game-winning 3-point attempt. The Wizards had called timeout with two seconds left and Stackhouse was the one with the clutch attempt. He had scored the Wizards’ previous 10 points while Jordan didn’t score in clutch time in this one.
I scrambled to find video of this game. I even searched “ben wallace blocks michael jordan” and amazingly, that pulled up a YouTube highlight reel titled “Michael Jordan (Age 38) Schools Ben Wallace’s Defense” from an account called Nobody Touches Jordan.
The video caption reads: “Ben blocked Jordan twice in their 2nd meeting, but aside from that, Jordan scored against Wallace’s help defense or set up a teammate to score at Wallace’s expense in every notable instance.” OK, then.
Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley | Nov 3, 1997 | SAS 82, CHI 87
A wild game. Without Scottie Pippen in uniform, Jordan shot 12 of 39 (30.8 percent) in this double-overtime win over a rookie Tim Duncan and the Spurs.
Down three with 29 seconds left, Jordan drove right and drew two defenders. Rather than shoot over them, MJ passed to the open man, Longley, who hit a jumper from 15-feet to bring it within one.
Next possession, down three with about 10 seconds left, Jordan missed a jumper, Kukoc got it back and fired up a 3-pointer from the right wing. Missed. Longley recovered and fed it to Jordan for the game-tying three. Third-chance opportunity and it went to overtime. In the next two overtimes, Jordan shot 3-of-10 and went 1-for-2 at the line. The Bulls won anyway.
Not really a Jordan defer game, but the Longley shot shared similarities to James’ decision on Monday, for sure.
Toni Kukoc | Dec 7, 1996 | MIA 83, CHI 80
After Jordan missed a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:12 left, the Bulls wouldn’t get the ball back until one second left in the game due to two offensive rebounds by the home squad. Thunder Dan Majerle hit a 3-pointer over Jordan nearly at the buzzer.
With a tick left on the clock, the Bulls called timeout. Rodman took out the ball and Kukoc caught the ball at the top of the key, turned around and launched a potential game-tying three-pointer. Didn’t go in. Jordan looked on from the far side of the floor. Couldn’t get open.
Steve Kerr | Mar 14, 1997 | CHI 98, NJN 99
A 55-8 Bulls team lost to a 18-44 Nets squad on a seven-game losing streak? It happened. With about 25 seconds left in a tie game, Jordan fed it to Kerr for a 3-pointer, but it missed. I tried to get video of this but it was edited out. The clip did show Jordan passing to Kerr for a 3-pointer with 1:45 left to bring it within two.
With two Nets crowding him, Jordan airballed the potential game-tying shot, a mid-range jumper, his third airball of the game. Wide right. Nets win.
“It was pretty much a dumb shot,” Jordan told the Chicago Tribune.
Jordan taking a clutch shot, missing and admitting it was ill-advised? Say it ain’t so! Not my GOAT … or something.
There are probably dozens more. I’m sorry for any notable ones I missed. Unfortunately, play-by-play data only goes back to the 1996-97 season. For the two seasons of data on the Jordan Bulls, there were 16 occasions of a Jordan teammate taking a shot to tie or go-ahead with less than 24 seconds in the game. For the previous 11 Jordan seasons, we only have Chicago’s game-winners easily accessible. All of LeBron’s are miscues or deferrals are at the ready.
Most of the moments when Michael Jordan deferred and/or failed are lost to the pre-Internet ether. History, as they say, is written by the victors.
A special thank you to Basketball-Reference.com’s Mike Lynch and the really fun All-Time Game-winners page he created. As always, BR is indispensable.