Celtics legend became coach and came closer than anybody to ending MJ's Bulls

Few people could go toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan on a basketball court.

Larry Bird was one of them.

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Boston icon Larry Bird is one of the greatest to ever do itCredit: Getty

12x All-Star Larry Legend is a three-time NBA champion, two-time Finals MVP and three-time MVP who, along with Magic Johnson, is accredited with reviving the NBA in the 1980s and reigniting the once-dormant rivalry between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.

Jordan entered the league in 1984 and crossed paths with Bird and the high-flying Cs in the 1986 playoffs.

Bird got to witness a 23-year-old MJ’s greatness first-hand when His Airness dropped a playoff record 63 points in Game 2 of the Chicago Bulls’ first-round series against Boston.

“God disguised as Michael Jordan” was Bird’s only explanation for Jordan’s heroics.

When the 1990s rolled around, the NBA was very much Jordan’s league and Bird’s time in the spotlight was all but over.

Bird retired in 1992 while Jordan’s Bulls won three straight championships between 1991-1993.

MJ abruptly retired in his prime to play Minor League Baseball but returned to the NBA in 1995 to find Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller had taken the mantle of the Eastern Conference’s best shooting guard in his absence.

Miller and the Pacers were a powerhouse out East in the mid 90s but failed to get over the hump, losing to the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic in the 1994 and 1995 Eastern Conference Finals, respectively.

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Jordan and teammate Scottie Pippen were virtually unstoppable in the 1990sCredit: Getty

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Reggie Miller was a big rival of MJ in the Eastern ConferenceCredit: Getty

The Bulls, meanwhile, were back to being The Association’s pre-eminent force with Jordan spearheading their triangle offense, winning back-to-back world titles in 1996 and 1997.

The Pacers, like every other team in the NBA, needed something special to overcome MJ and the genius of Phil Jackson.

Old footage from NCAA March Madness reveals where Michael Jordan first made his legendary NBA name with game -winning shot for North Carolina

In 1997, the franchise appointed Indy-native Larry Bird as their head coach, despite the fact he had no previous coaching experience.

That season, the Pacers had Miller, Rik Smits, Chris Mullin, Antonio Davis, Dale Davis, Mark Jackson, Jalen Rose, Travis Best, and Austin Croshere.

With Bird at the helm, Indiana’s talented squad finished with a 58–24 record – the franchise’s best as an NBA team at the time – and locked up the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

They dropped one game to the Cleveland Cavaliers in their first round series and lost just one more one game in the second round to the Knicks.

That put them on a collision course with Jordan and the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, who were in the midst of their Last Dance run and one title away from a second three-peat.

The Bulls won Games 1 and 2 of the 1998 ECFs but Indy bounced back in Games 3 and 4 to even the series at 2-2.

Game 4 featured Miller’s iconic game-winning shot over Jordan with 2.9 seconds on the clock.

Miller got free from Jordan, caught the inbound pass from Derrick McKey, turned and made a game-winning 3-pointer with 0.7 seconds to go.

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Miller’s Pacers were one of MJ’s toughest challengesCredit: Getty

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They were two of the best shooting guards of the 90sCredit: Getty

Game 5 was a blowout for the Bulls but Bird’s Pacers bounced back in Game 6 to squeak out a close 92-89 win.

With the series locked at 3-3, the 1998 ECFs would be decided by a Game 7 at United Center — forcing the Bulls into only their second elimination game in six title runs (the first came in the second round against the Knicks in 1992, which they won).

The Pacers led by 10 at one stage but the Bulls rallied and led for most of the second and third quarters.

Indy eventually took a 72-69 fourth quarter lead on a Smits and-one with 8:54 remaining.

It was nip and tuck from there but future Warriors head coach Steve Kerr hit a huge 3-pointer to tie the game and the Pacers faded.

The Bulls retook the lead with 4:45 left and held on to win 88-83.

Bird, Miller and the Pacers were a whisker away from ending the Bulls dynasty and pushed Michael Jordan closer than anybody ever had in the playoffs.

Chicago went on to win the title that year, beating the Utah Jazz in six games to claim their second three-peat and Jordan’s sixth title overall.

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Bird and Miller pushed Jordan to a Game 7 for only the second time in his careerCredit: Getty

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They were beaten by the Bulls in the 1998 ECFsCredit: Getty

However, it was Bird and Miller’s Pacers that provided MJ’s toughest postseason challenge of the 90s.

“That was the scariest game we ever faced,” Kerr later said.

“Indiana was probably the toughest, outside of Detroit,” Jordan once admitted. “They were tough. Every time I’d go in that f***ing game and come out, I got a new scratch.

“It became personal with me.”

Bird and Miller stuck around in the late 90s and early 00s after Jordan retired and the Bulls dynasty broke up.

Their Pacers squad made the 2000 NBA Finals but were bested 4-2 by Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Bird resigned his head coaching position shortly after the end of the 2000 season while Miller retired in 2005.

Fast forward to 2024 and the Bulls are largely irrelevant while Jayson Tatum’s Celtics and Tyrese Haliburton’s Pacers are about to face off in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Boston and Indiana are two of the most storied franchises in basketball – fortunately for them, they no longer have to worry about coming up against Michael Jordan in the playoffs.

The Celtics took Game 1 of this year’s ECF’s after a nail-biting 133-128 overtime win.

Jaylen Brown hit a game-tying three-pointer with 6.1 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game to OT.

Jayson Tatum scored 36 points, including 10 in overtime, while Jrue Holiday added a season-high 28 points.

Brown finished with 26 points as the Cs go 1-0 up in the series.

Game 2 is set for Thursday night in Boston.

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