Today in Atlanta Hawks history: a career-high for Michael Jordan.
The Atlanta Hawks played the Chicago Bulls 33 years ago, today, April 16, 1987. On paper, the matchup didn’t hold much weight. It was between a seasoned Hawks team ready to make a championship run with Dominique Wilkins, and a young Bulls team, who despite a losing record, were headed to the playoffs as well.
As the NBA world would soon learn, no game with Michael Jordan in it holds little weight. Jordan exploded in the game, scoring 61 points (tying his career-high to that point) on 22-38 shooting, adding 10 rebounds and four steals. The Hawks still won the game.
Atlanta outscored the Bulls 37-23 in the final period to grab the win, their 57th of the season. Dominque went for 34 points while Kevin Willis and Antoine Carr both added 20. The focus after the game, however, was on MJ.
This wasn’t the MJ we know today, the one who’s about to have a ten-part documentary air on ESPN. This was a young, albeit still popular Jordan, who’d made the All-Star team in each of his first three seasons despite delivering just one playoff victory.
The ’86-’97 season was his breakout year, averaging a career-best 37.1 points per game, carrying his Bulls to a 40-42 record and the eighth seed out East. Although he didn’t have GOAT status yet, he still acted as he had.
In a recent interview with Joe Vardon of The Athletic (subscription required), Dominque Wilkins shared a story of Jordan entering the Hawks’ locker room before the 61-point outburst. Wilkins recalls: “And I’m like, what the hell is he coming in our locker room for? And he walked by me, walked by Kevin (Willis), and he tapped Randy Wittman on the leg and he said, ‘Lace ’em up, it’s gonna be a long f–king night.”
Future Cavs and Wizards head coach Randy Wittman was the Hawks’ starting guard opposite MJ, and Jordan obviously knew his target. He played just 19 minutes against Jordan, scoring just two points while being torched by Jordan on the other end.
The Hawks survived thanks in large part to MJ (who played 41 minutes, with the Hawks double-teaming him most of the second half), running out of gas down the stretch, and won the game 117-114. It was Wilkins who made the go-ahead shot with just seconds to go. A year later, Jordan would defeat (rob?) Wilkins in the NBA Dunk Contest.
The Hawks finished that season 57-25, a franchise-best record at that time. They would go on to lose to the “Bad Boy Pistons” in the second round of the playoffs while the Bulls got swept by Boston in round one.
It would be a few years before Jordan and the Bulls were making the Finals every year, but this game against the Hawks 33 years ago, and the events in the locker room prior, were a good indication of the winning mentality that was always there.