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Historical Handicapping: Would the Bulls have won a Game 7 in the 1996 NBA Finals?

Even if Gary Payton guarded Michael Jordan from the start of the 1996 NBA Finals, the Bulls would’ve come out on top.

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls looks to make a basket as Seattle SuperSonics guard Gary Payton defends in the fourth quarter of the 18 March game at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Supersonics 89-87 in overtime. Photo credit should read VINCENT LAFORET/AFP via Getty Images

The Last Dance got us thinking about all things Michael Jordan. The GOAT faced a ton of of challenges throughout his NBA career, but few individuals appeared to be able to guard him one-on-one. Former Seattle Supersonics star Gary “The Glove” Payton felt that his defensive strategy could’ve pushed Jordan to his limits in the 1996 NBA Finals though.

Payton’s thoughts on whether he could’ve locked down MJ to force a Game 7 blessed us with this hilarious reaction.

How impactful could Payton’s physicality have been in the long run? Could he have stopped Jordan? I don’t think so, and neither does Johnny Avello — longtime oddsmaker and director of DraftKings Sportsbook. Avello deducted that the Bulls would have been favored at -9 in a hypothetical Game 7. We break down why that makes sense here.

Seattle Supersonics vs. Chicago Bulls 1997 NBA Finals — Game 7

Supersonics at Bulls (-9)

Chicago amassed a 3-0 lead to kick start the 1996 finals and appeared to be approaching a sweep before Payton took over as Jordan’s primary defender. Jordan averaged 31 points per contest while the Bulls won by an average of 14.33 points to start the series. This was on par with the 30.4 points he averaged during the regular season. In fact, Jordan was slowly improving with time by reaching a higher point total in each of the first three games. Let’s take a look at how much Payton affected Jordan’s production.

Jordan’s scoring average did drop to just under 24 points per game when he was primarily being guarded by Payton, two of his last three games were on the road. Chicago won by an average of 11 points at home throughout the NBA Finals, so it’s not unreasonable to believe that Jordan and his supporting cast would turn it on in a closeout game in the United Center. But there are other factors that must be considered as well.

I’m not buying Payton’s ability to last for the entirety of a seven-game series against the Bulls. While he was 1996’s Defensive Player of the Year, Payton was also involved on offense and averaged 18 points per on more than 46 minutes per night. Nate McMillan — the 1994 NBA steals leader and two-time All-Defensive second team player — was hobbled by a back injury and wouldn’t have been able to spell Payton and from a mountainous workload after fighting through pain in Games 4 and 5. Scoring, facilitating, and guarding the best player in the world would simply prove to be too much for Payton without a spark plug off the bench — even if Shawn Kemp was having the series of his life.

There you have it. The Supersonics might have been able to put up a bit of a fight in a Game 7, but I believe fatigue and lack of depth would result in an outcome that favored the Bulls. Seattle would’ve needed the perfect storm to prevent the start of Chicago’s second three-peat. But that just wasn’t in the cards. The Bulls should have been able win Game 7 and cover the spread by a few points in my opinion, given how successful they were on their home court.

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