The Last Dance: Orlando Magic were just another sleight for Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan used his defeat to the Orlando Magic in 1995 as another sleight to fuel his fire.
Michael Jordan used his defeat to the Orlando Magic in 1995 as another sleight to fuel his fire. /

Michael Jordan’s career is full of his desire to make good on real and perceived sleights. The 1995 Orlando Magic proved to be just another piece of fuel.

The greatest moment in Orlando Magic was met with a grimace and a bit of smug indignation from Michael Jordan.

Defeat was never in Jordan’s vocabulary and the frustration of it still lives on 25 years later. That one still stung. It forced Jordan into some realization that he probably knew already consciously but confirmed for him in grim reality.

For once, he was not good enough. And he finally had the motivation of someone chasing a championship, not one defending it.

After 18 months of playing baseball, jumping right back into basketball was not going to be so easy. There were teams ready to dethrone him and unafraid. The whole league had one year without Jordan to claim the title and there were plenty more.

Horace Grant knew that better than anyone, winning three titles with the Chicago Bulls and earning an All-Star bid in 1994, he joined the Orlando Magic to help a young team open up its title window. There was a lot of fresh opportunity with Jordan gone.

Jordan’s whole career is a path of teams and players he just buried into the ground. He gave nobody any chance to breathe and he crushed belief anywhere he could find it. That is what drove him and made him somewhat legendary.

But then 1995 happened. The veneer of invincibility got dropped. For the first time, playoff failure truly felt like it belonged to Jordan.

Nick Anderson stole the ball from Michael Jordan at the end of Game 1. Jordan committed another turnover at the end of that game. He had another turnover late in Game 3 that helped Orlando solidify its lead. And Game 6 saw Jordan clank shots as the Magic burned off a 14-0 run to clinch the series.

Jordan walked off the floor and his season was over. And it still stuck with him it was clear. This is not a man accustomed to losing.

And what The Last Dance made clear, that loss became the latest game he had to play. The latest sleight and doubt he had to overcome in his quest for greatness.

The Magic to Jordan and the documentary were just another sleight Jordan had to disprove. He used the Playoff defeat to fuel his offseason work to get back into basketball shape and lead the Bulls back to the title in 1996 — and a 72-10 season.

The Magic were no longer a nuisance, just gristle on the pan of preparing Jordan for greatness. He took the failure of 1995 personally as the world asked if he was the same man who left the league in 1993 and internalized it into motivation.

This is part of the Jordan story and mystique. This personal motivation.

But the Magic were much more than this. Whereas Jordan’s other great failure — the Detroit Pistons — was part of his maturation process on his ascendance. The Magic represented a different threat. One that was unrealized.

Their place in history deserves a bigger story. One they got in This Magic Moment. But one The Last Dance largely skipped over.

This was a loss with Jordan near the peak of his power and could have been the contender that overcame him.

Nobody did of course. Jordan stamped out all challengers with exacting precision. Including, and most heartbreakingly, the Magic.

A story of sleights

In Episode 8 of ESPN’s 10-part documentary, the documentary focuses on Michael Jordan’s legendary penchant for finding motivation in those who doubt him.

The episode starts with B.J. Armstrong leading the Charlotte Hornets to a Game 2 win in the 1998 Eastern Conference Semifinals. In a close game, Armstrong hits a big shot and starts yelling at Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ bench.

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Jordan smirks in an interview in the present-day and says, “B.J. should have known better.” The Bulls won the next three games to ease out of the series with Jordan shutting down Armstrong (at least that is what the documentary shows).

The documentary moves on to tell the story of how Washington Bullets forward LaBradford Smith scored 35 on Michael Jordan in a game in 1993 and reportedly said, “Good game, Mike,” afterward.

The two teams played each other next night and Jordan promised to score the same amount in the first half. He scored 36 on his way to 47 points.

Jordan later admitted the story was completely made up. Something he needed to get himself going.

Breaking the mystique

This is part of the Michael Jordan mystique and deserving of its own examination. When someone tells Jordan he cannot do something, he has to prove them wrong. When someone does something that seemingly disrespects his greatness, he has to prove them wrong and put them in their place.

The Magic did that several times over in 1995. They embarrassed him in many ways.

The Steal. Nick Anderson saying, “45 isn’t 23,” eliciting the eye roll to end eye rolls from Horace Grant. The 14-0 run to end Game 6 and clinch the series. Lifting Horace Grant onto the team’s shoulders — a moment Grant reportedly did not want until Shaquille O’Neal <ahem> told him he was going up.

In the documentary, Jordan blames the series loss seemingly almost entirely on fatigue and being out of shape. The documentary plays clips of people commenting on his fatigue and how he loses his edge late in games.

To be sure that played a role.

He was not in basketball shape. Jordan admits that he was not in the kind of shape he would want to be in for the playoffs. The Bulls trainer is interviewed and says that Jordan was in baseball condition but was not in peak basketball form.

It is clear from how Jordan is playing that he is there but not completely there. The Magic take him out of a lot of his game too. And he makes a lot of mistakes, especially late.

NBA games are 48 minutes and it is those last eight minutes that separate the men of the NBA from the boys in college. There is something to that and something to that clutch ability. Jordan made so many mistakes late in games that series that fatigue played a role.

But the Magic deserve their credit too. Credit that the documentary did not give them as the only team to beat Jordan in a playoff series since the Pistons of the early 1990s. The Magic were a real challenge that this Bulls team was not capable of defeating.

They had no answer for Shaquille O’Neal. Phil Jackson made a mistake not putting size on Anfernee Hardaway — he rarely used Scottie Pippen to defend him. They dared Horace Grant to beat them and Grant tortured them throughout the season, shooting better than 60 percent and averaging 18 points per game.

Chicago Bulls
Chicago Bulls /

Chicago Bulls

Jordan and the Bulls had to change.

Change to win

For the Chicago Bulls, it was left mentioned only by Horace Grant that they acquired Dennis Rodman to match up with him and Shaquille O’Neal on the inside.

For Jordan, he went right to work the next day with his trainer Tim Grover. He was obsessive and competitive during the filming of Space Jam to get his basketball acumen back. And then he played with the intensity of someone who demanded payment.

He got that payment, sweeping the Magic out of the Eastern Conference Finals — and into oblivion with O’Neal leaving the following offseason as the Magic imploded under their own problems. That rematch barely got a mention in the documentary.

What mattered was the sleight and spark of motivation. It was not the opponent or the challenge.

In this world, there were no real challengers — not until the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals in the Indiana Pacers, who would force the Chicago Bulls to seven games (likely the focus of Episode 9), and 1998 NBA Finals, where the Utah Jazz got their Finals rematch (likely the focus of Episode 10).

The Bulls had no young team to truly threaten them.

Well, they had one. But the Magic imploded before they could make that challenge to Jordan’s crown. We never saw Orlando’s response to the embarrassment of a sweep. That chapter to the story never got written.

In all, The Last Dance gave the Magic maybe five minutes. More than other teams — including some of Jordan’s Finals opponents. But far less for a team that actually defeated the Bulls in a Playoff series.

Next. Horace Grant is won the 1995 Magic/Bulls series. dark

Instead, history and The Last Dance remember the Magic as just another team that made the mistake of challenge Jordan, feeding his fire once again.