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, Chicago Bulls forward Toni Kukoč takes the spotlight.
Context: The 1993-94 season will take centre stage in Episode 7 of "The Last Dance."
While the Chicago Bulls were unable to win a title that season, they were far more successful than many expected them to be without Michael Jordan, who was in the first year of his first retirement. Without him, Scottie Pippen emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate and led the Bulls to a Game 7 against a New York Knicks team that was tied with the Atlanta Hawks for the best record in the Eastern Conference that season in the second round of the playoffs.
But Pippen wasn't the only player on the Bulls to come up big against the Knicks. With the Bulls trailing 2-0, Tony Kukoč hit a game-winner in Game 3 to keep the series alive. The controversy surrounding the play gets far more attention than the play itself - more on that controversy here - which is a shame because it was an incredible shot from a player who became an integral part of Chicago's success in the second half of the decade.
Let's take a closer look at it.
The play: Kukoč hits a game-winner in Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
On this day in 1994: Tied at 102 with 1.8 seconds left in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Knicks, Toni Kukoc hit the game-winner.- Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) May 13, 2018
Breakdown: Bulls guard Pete Myers inbounds the ball while Kukoč, Steve Kerr, B.J. Armstrong and Horace Grant line up at the free throw line. Kukoč and Grant bookend the line with Kerr and Armstrong sandwiched in between them.
Grant gets the action started by running from one end of the line to the other and around Kukoč on a cut towards the basket.
Once Grant gets around Kukoč, Kerr and Armstrong split in different directions - Kerr to the top of the 3-point line, Armstrong to the right wing.
Not wanting to give them any daylight with 1.8 seconds remaining in a game tied up at 102, their defenders follow them step-for-step.
With Grant underneath the basket, Kerr near the halfcourt line and Armstrong on the wing, Kukoč is left alone at the free throw line with Knicks forward Anthony Mason guarding him. Kukoč holds Mason off to open up a passing lane from Myers, who lobs the ball over the 6-foot-8 jumping jack that is Charles Oakley.
Mason was a tough defender - he made the All-Defensive Second Team in 1997 - but at 6-foot-7, he's four inches shorter than Kukoč. That gives Kukoč the confidence to turn around and shoot over him.
It wasn't an easy shot, but it was one Kukoč was capable of making. He was a solid shooter, particularly for a player of his size.
"How did I do it? Easy, I shoot the ball and hope it goes in," Kukoč said after the game. "The ball came in my hands and there was not much to think about. I had a pretty good look at the basket."
Why it matters: Beyond the Pippen drama, there are a few things you need to know about this play.
First and foremost, it wasn't the first time the Bulls used it. In a game against the Indiana Pacers a couple of months prior, Bulls head coach Phil Jackson called the exact same play for Kukoč with 0.8 seconds remaining on the clock, only it was Pippen who inbounded the ball, not Myers, and it ended in a 3-pointer for Kukoč rather than a 19-footer.
There's a chance the Knicks knew the play - the way they were set up and the way they reacted to Grant's cut makes me think they did - but Kukoč was still able to get off a solid shot considering the circumstances.
Secondly, those weren't the only clutch shots Kukoč made that season.
Stats from the 1993-94 season are limited, but here's what we do know: Kukoč was the only player in the league to hit more than one game-winning buzzer-beater and he had at least two other game-winners. The first came in the fourth game of the season, when Kukoč hit a 3-pointer in the closing seconds to beat the Milwaukee Bucks. The second came on Christmas Day, when he hit a runner over Shaquille O'Neal to take down the Orlando Magic on Christmas Day.
Now, a couple of crazy things about that:
- Kukoč was a rookie in 1993-94. A 25-year-old rookie, sure, but a rookie nonetheless. For him to have hit that many big shots on a team that had as many eyeballs on it as the Bulls did as a rookie is incredibly impressive.
- That was one of only two shots Kukoč hit in that game. Prior to his game-winner, he was 1-for-5 from the field in 13 minutes of action in Game 3. For Kukoč to shrug off one of his worst performances to that point of the season and step up when the Bulls needed him the most, also incredibly impressive.
That brings us to the final point: Chicago's season would have been all but over had Kukoč not made that shot.
They still lost the series, but the Bulls were able to push the Knicks, who had the best odds to win the title entering that season, to seven games without Jordan. The Bulls would've still had an opportunity to win the game in overtime had Kukoč's shot not fallen, but I'm going to go ahead and assume that they would have lost in that situation given how angry their best player was and how the Knicks had all the momentum in their favour. (Another wild part about this game? The Knicks stormed back from a 22-point third quarter deficit to tie it up. This game had like seven degrees of madness). In which case, the Bulls would've fallen into a 3-0 hole that no team in NBA history has ever come out of.
Again, it still wasn't enough for the Bulls to win the series, but with how big of a shot it was at the time, it shouldn't be overshadowed by the controversy stirred up by Pippen's decision to not take the court.
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