Orlando Magic Lessons from The Last Dance: Great teams inject a little toughness

The Orlando Magic added Horace Grant in 1995 to give them what all championship teams need -- toughness. (Photo credit should read TONY RANZE/AFP via Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic added Horace Grant in 1995 to give them what all championship teams need -- toughness. (Photo credit should read TONY RANZE/AFP via Getty Images) /

In this week’s The Last Dance, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls overcame the Detroit Pistons and learned toughness matters in winning a title.

The story of the 1998 Chicago Bulls started off in the first episode of The Last Dance as a battle between egos. The first story it tells is of the general manager who built the team and was threatening to tear it apart after it won its fifth title in seven years.

It was a battle of egos essentially. A fight for who got credit for the team’s success. A battle between the desire to win now and the desire to build for the future. A conflict of short- and long-term thinking.

There was always an assumption you can get the formula right again. So long as you have your galvanizing star, everything else can fall into place.

Episodes 1 and 2 were about establishing Jordan as the Bulls’ future star. Episodes 3 and 4 of the series were about the ascent to a championship and the team the Bulls ultimately had to overcome.

The Jordan Rules

The Detroit Pistons, coached by future Orlando Magic coach Chuck Daly, implemented the “Jordan Rules” to deal with Michael Jordan.

The rules were fairly simple — keep Jordan out of the paint by forcing him left or to the corners, trap him if he got in the post and if he happened to get by the first line of defense, swarm him with bodies. In the late 1980s, that swarm meant Jordan was going to spend a lot of time on the ground with hard foul after hard foul. The Pistons were going to dish out physical punishment.

In Jordan’s story, quite literally, the battle to overcome the Pistons was the gatekeeper to winning his first title in 1991.

When the Chicago Bulls swept the two-time defending champions in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was cathartic and the Bulls had finally arrived. The best player in the game had won his first title.

The Magic, of course, have an important tie to this team.

The undoubted star of Episode 4 of The Last Dance was the smiling — and still surprisingly buff — face of Horace Grant. He provided the quote of the night, using some choice words to describe the Pistons walking off the court at the Palace of Auburn Hills without shaking the Bulls’ hands to end the series.

That is a sleight that seemingly everyone on the Bulls still holds against those bitter rivals.

Horace Grant provided a lot of the levity for a wild episode of the documentary. The Bulls were still seemingly relishing in their victory and a bit salty for the wringer the Pistons put them through. Winning that series mattered to them. They got the last word in the rivalry.

Much of Monday was spent talking to the Pistons for their perspective on the episode. Isiah Thomas offered little apology for his actions, although he said he paid a heavy price in not shaking hands with Jordan and the Bulls after that defeat. As the next episode of The Last Dance will surely reveal, that sleight to Jordan likely cost Thomas his spot on the Dream Team.

Bill Laimbeer was less magnanimous. He said the team did the right thing — following something of a tradition at the time of players walking off the court quickly after the wars they went through. This is not LeBron James leaving the court in frustration after Dwight Howard took an unnecessary three in 2009.

The measuring stick

In those playoff defeats to the Detroit Pistons, the Chicago Bulls constantly had to measure themselves. Laimbeer called the Bulls “whiners” throughout. Indeed, the documentary did a good job showing how the Pistons rattled the Bulls early on.

Horace Grant was a rookie in the 1988 season when the Pistons defeated the Bulls in five games in the second round of the Playoffs. That was the first of three straight playoff defeats to the Pistons.

This was the Bulls’ ultimate test to prove their championship worthiness.

Every great player has some established team they have to overcome to take their place at the top of the mountain. For LeBron James, for instance, it was the Boston Celtics. For Stephen Curry it was LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers or, to some extent Chris Paul and his LA Clippers.

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There is always a struggle to get to the top of the mountain. And this was merely the Bulls’ struggle.

After falling to the Pistons, the Bulls clearly looked like the team that could not measure up. The Bulls players talked about playing the Pistons in those early days and how they got frustrated with the physicality.

Grant was among the former Bulls players to say the moment you showed weakness or complained to the refs, that is when the Pistons knew they had you.

After the loss to the Pistons in the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals — the famous “migraine game” for Scottie Pippen — Jordan committed himself and his team to getting in the weight room and becoming stronger. That is at least how The Last Dance portrays it. The Bulls were going to match the Pistons’ physicality.

The rest is history.

Injecting physicality, toughness

Horace Grant played a big role in that. The Chicago Bulls had Bill Cartwright for his size on the inside. Grant was his backup at power forward. And back then, every team needed a few enforcers to lock down the lane.

Grant’s presence in the paint was a big part of the Bulls’ title successes — he averaged 12.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game in the title-winning 1991 season and 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game in the playoffs.

The Bulls, in other words, had to discover an edge. Jordan knew how to score and put on scoring performances. But that series against the Detroit Pistons was when he became a killer. That is when Chicago found its nastiness.

And this is a vital element of every team.

Ron Harper still holding hard feelings for Lenny Wilkens for not putting him on Michael Jordan for “The Shot” in 1988 is part of that too. He has a chip on his shoulder and a belief he could have stopped one of the greatest moments of Jordan’s career.

The Bulls went out and got a wild card in Dennis Rodman knowing they needed that toughness element after (unspoken in the documentary) Shaquille O’Neal dropped 24.3 points and 13.2 rebounds per game in that series in 1995. Rodman was willing to do the dirty work and, on occasion because it was still necessary in the late 1990s, get into a fight to defend his guys.

Teams need an edge. They need someone who is going to mix things up and let other teams know they are not going to get pushed around. They need someone who can protect their star physically.

NBA fights are not a thing anymore. Players express their physicality in different ways. But it is still necessary.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The Magic signed Horace Grant in 1995 to give Shaquille O’Neal a backup in the starting lineup. Grant’s physicality and leadership gave the team an air of seriousness. On a team that was still so young and figuring things out, Grant gave them a toughness defensively and a seriousness of purpose that lifted them to the title.

Grant showed some of his warts early in his career against the Detroit Pistons. He may not have been all the answers — ultimately the Bulls swept the Magic in 1996, bullying an injury-riddled team in the end. And then the team broke up.

But even looking at the 2009 Magic, they needed an element of toughness.

One of the defining moments of that playoff run was Game 1 of the second round against the Boston Celtics. Rafer Alston slapped the back of Eddie House‘s head. It was a sign the team was not going to get pushed around, especially as Orlando held on for a Game 1 win.

Without Kevin Garnett, the Magic had free reign in the paint as Dwight Howard put in work down low. The Celtics could not match up.

Matt Barnes came the next year and provided a little more physicality to the team. His famous feint at Kobe Bryant became legend — even to Bryant himself. But the team’s lack of physical edge among their top guys became apparent, especially in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Celtics held the physical edge and dominated the first three games of the series.

The current Magic team is also seeking its physical edge. They have a lot of players who are not naturally physical players.

A criticism for Nikola Vucevic has always been how he tries to avoid contact in the low block and tends to favor his jumper. Physicality does sometimes seem like something he has to effort at.

Being physical and “getting into players” has long been something Steve Clifford has asked his team to do. Fans have long asked for a player willing to flip over a table and demand more from his teammates.

Steve Clifford certainly favors a player like Michael Carter-Williams because he is not afraid to mix things up and make opponents uncomfortable. Michael Carter-Williams is the closest thing the current Magic have to a pest on defense.

Every team needs a guy like that. They really need their top guy to set a physical tone. They need someone who will push through their frustrations and impose their will on the game.

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This physicality and toughness are vital to successful teams. It was something the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan needed to learn to reach their pinnacle.