Lessons from The Last Dance: Orlando Magic’s win over Chicago Bulls was Horace Grant’s victory

Horace Grant left the series with the Chicago Bulls in 1995 on his Orlando Magic teammates' shoulders. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel/ALLSPORT
Horace Grant left the series with the Chicago Bulls in 1995 on his Orlando Magic teammates' shoulders. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel/ALLSPORT /

Horace Grant left the Orlando Magic’s series over the Chicago Bulls in 1995 on his teammates’ shoulders. The victory truly belonged to him.

Horace Grant was not on the floor for the final moments of the Orlando Magic’s 1995 Playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. In the third quarter of that game, he jammed his finger and strained it, if not suffering ligament damage. By the time the Eastern Conference Finals began, that finger was heavily taped.

Yet, at the end of that game — following a 14-0 run from Orlando that shocked Chicago and the United Center crowd — Horace Grant was on his teammates’ shoulders. It was something of an appreciation for what the veteran had given the team.

This young team — their average age was 27.5 years old with Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway as the two youngest players on the team at 24 years old — was shocking the basketball world. They had already done so in winning 59 games and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

But the Playoffs were different. The Playoffs are always different.

This is where their inexperience was supposed to stunt their growth. They were supposed to learn the hard lessons of playoff defeat to feed their future dynasty. This was not supposed to be their time.

But, “Why not us? Why not now?”

After defeating the Bulls, that statement felt more believable than ever before. The Magic had a real chance to win the title. And they really could thank the guy they forced upon their shoulders after the six-game series.

"“I felt 10 feet tall out there,” Grant told the Orlando Sentinel after game. “It was great to win here. And I think this team has come of age.”"

This victory was as much Grant’s victory as the Magic’s victory. The Bulls dared him to defeat his former teammates. And he delivered, ultimately delivering the biggest blow — staying out of the way and letting his young teammates push the team to victory without him.

With Grant on his teammates’ shoulders waving a towel in victory on Chicago’s new floor at the United Center, Grant won the series in the 1995 Playoffs.

The moment was about an appreciation for what the veteran had imparted on the team — some institutional knowledge and poise.

That resiliency was on display throughout the entire series. The Magic trailed late in Game 1, Nick Anderson stole the ball ending in a Horace Grant dunk for the win. In Game 3, the Magic trailed for much of the game until a third-quarter run gave them control. In Game 5, a similar 3-point burst from Dennis Scott helped them pull away.

And then, of course, the Game 6 run. Something that is still stunning and shocking to see. Especially against a team as seasoned and a player as dominant as Michael Jordan. These Bulls may not have been the team they would become even just a year later, but they were still the Bulls.

And that probably gave Grant his own personal satisfaction.

A lot of that series was a lesson in the Bulls’ hubris. It had to humble Chicago to focus the team for its eventual second three-peat.

As detailed in The Last Dance, Jordan believes Grant was the one who talked to Sam Smith in his landmark book, The Jordan Rules. While the Bulls would go on to win one more title and Grant would play another two seasons in Chicago after it was published, including an All-Star Game appearance in 1994, it definitely fractured the group a little bit.

Grant categorically denied he was the one who spoke to Smith about the Bulls’ inner workings during the documentary and in interviews afterward. And even by 1998, it seemed that had not completely colored Jordan’s relationship.

The most visible Magic vignette so far in the documentary was a captain’s meeting in April 1998 when Jordan joked with Grant that they probably would not see the Magic in that year’s playoffs. The Orlando Magic missed the postseason by two games that year (and a potential matchup with the Chicago Bulls in the first round the New Jersey Nets took).

There was a lot more at play though.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

One of the reasons Grant left the Bulls was his desire to get more involved in the offense. Phil Jackson saw him exclusively as a rebounder and defender, doing a lot of the dirty work. And Grant wanted to do more.

He averaged 15.5 points per game on a career-high 12.5 field goal attempts per game in that 1994 season. Coming to Orlando, Grant went back to his grinder role, averaging 12.8 points per game on 9.6 field goal attempts per game.

As if to prove the point about Grant’s lack of offense, Jackson made it a point to double off Grant onto O’Neal or Hardaway. Jackson wanted Grant to beat them.

That is what Grant did throughout the series. He scored 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting in Game 3, taking advantage of those double teams to cut to the basket for easy baskets or hit that patented mid-range jumper from the just above the free-throw line.

For the series, Grant averaged 18.0 points per game on 64.7-percent shooting. Take out his six-point performance in Game 6, and it rises to 20.4 points per game on 70.0-percent shooting.

The Magic got a big series from Shaquille O’Neal. Anfernee Hardaway contributed by taking advantage of the Bulls keeping the smaller B.J. Armstrong on him. Nick Anderson helped bottle up Michael Jordan to the extent he could.

It was Grant’s extra boost offensively that lifted the Magic throughout the series. He earned his place on his teammates’ shoulder not just for the wisdom he surely imparts and the steady hand he played, but for his on-court contributions.

This is why the Magic wanted to bring Grant in. And it worked perfectly.

Of course, time has a way of repeating. Lessons learned become lessons forgotten.

In the Magic’s own youthful pride, they lifted Grant on their shoulders. Grant reportedly protested but O’Neal would have none of it. He was going up to celebrate the victory over his former team.

And Jordan remembers. He always remembers.

That embarrassment was surely part of why the Bulls came out like gangbusters to win 72 games. Grant was surely part of the reason the Bulls felt it necessary to acquire Dennis Rodman and invest more in 3-point shooting, spreading the floor more with Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr and Ron Harper the following year.

That moment and that defeat laid the seeds for the Bulls’ next three-peat. And likely the Magic’s eventual fall.

But that moment was all about Grant. That series was all about him and the revenge he got. It was all about how Grant helped a young team grow up and mature.

At the end of the day, if anyone deserved to be carried off in victory after that series, it was Grant.

Next. Lessons from the Last Dance: Great teams inject toughness. dark

Be sure to check out our previous posts on the landmark 1995 Playoff series between the Magic and the Bulls (which started 25 years ago today!). You can see our Rewatchables and Unanswerable Questions by clicking on the links.