Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, the one and only Michael Jordan takes the spotlight.
Context: You know the deal by now. With the NBA season being suspended, all attention has turned to ESPN and Netflix's documentary "The Last Dance," which follows Michael Jordan's final season with the Chicago Bulls.
Need you be reminded, Jordan's final season with the Bulls ended with Chicago defeating the Utah Jazz in six games in the NBA Finals to record their third straight championship, marking their second three-peat of the decade. The lasting image from that series is of Jordan crossing up Jazz forward Byron Russell and hitting the game-winning jump shot in Game 6, but that's not what we're here to focus on.
Instead, let's take a closer look at what happened on the possession before Jordan's iconic game-winner, because it's one of the more underappreciated plays in NBA history.
The play: In the closing seconds of Game 6, Jordan steals the ball from Karl Malone.
Breakdown: Following a layup from Jordan to cut Utah's lead to one point, John Stockton brings the ball up the court for the Jazz with around 30 seconds remaining in the game.
Sharing the court with Stockton are Jeff Hornacek, Antoine Carr, Russell and Malone. Steve Kerr is guarding Stockton, Scottie Pippen is guarding Carr and Toni Kukoč is guarding Russell, leaving Jordan to pick up Hornacek and Dennis Rodman to check Malone.
Russell and Carr space the floor for the Jazz by parking themselves along the top of the perimeter. Hornacek and Malone set themselves up in the post; Hornacek on the strongside, Malone on the weakside.
Once Stockton takes a dribble inside the 3-point line, Hornacek begins to move towards Malone. His plan? Set a screen for Malone so that he can establish deep post position against Rodman.
Few players defended Malone as well as Rodman did, but Malone had it rolling in this game with a team-high 31 points. Even with Rodman guarding him, giving Malone the ball in the post was perhaps Utah's best and safest option given the circumstances.
Hornacek's screen serves its intended purpose. When Malone receives the pass from Stockton, his heels are kissing the outside of the paint.
After setting the screen, Hornacek runs to the opposite corner to give Malone the space he needs to attack Rodman in the post.
Jordan, however, doesn't follow him.
Reading the play perfectly, Jordan ignores Hornacek and pounces on Malone before he has a chance to read the floor, swiping the ball clean out of his hands to come up with the steal.
"Karl never saw me coming," Jordan said following the game. "I was able to knock the ball away."
The rest is history. Jordan pushes the ball up the court, clears the floor and hits the game-winner over Russell to secure another three-peat for Chicago.
It would be Jordan's final steal, shot and win in a Bulls uniform.
Why it matters: It was a risky play, first and foremost.
The Bulls had already committed five fouls by that point of the fourth quarter, so had Jordan made contact with Malone, it would have sent him to the free-throw line, where he was a 74.2 percent shooter for his career. Even making one of two free throws would've put a lot more pressure on the Bulls, as they would have then needed a 2-pointer to tie the game up and send it into overtime.
Not only that, check out how open Hornacek was when Jordan went to double Malone:
In addition to the 31 points, Malone led the Jazz with seven assists to that point of the game. He won't ever be mentioned in the same breath as Nikola Jokic or Vlade Divac, but Malone developed into one of the better passers at his position in the second half of his career. Had he had half a second longer to survey the floor, he probably would have found Hornacek, who was Utah's second-leading scorer in this game with 17 points, for a wide-open jump shot or layup.
"I like my chances of going to Karl Malone every time," Stockton said afterwards. "He makes great passes, he makes great decisions and he scores."
That's what made Jordan special, though.
With how dominant an offensive player as he was, it's easy to forget that Jordan is also one of the most accomplished defenders of all-time. He won only one Defensive Player of the Year award in his career, but he's tied with Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Gary Payton for the most All-NBA First Team selections in NBA history with nine. He had the size and length to match up with multiple positions, as well as the instincts to make game-changing plays like this as a help defender.
Malone is far from the only person to have had their championship dreams ripped out of their hands by Jordan, both figuratively and literally. Jordan ranks third all-time on the NBA's steal leaderboards and 18th all-time on the NBA's steal percentage leaderboards. When he was around, no pass or dribble was safe.
Malone is just unfortunate that perhaps Jordan's greatest steal came against him in the closing seconds of a game that will never be forgotten.
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