Gary Payton had Michael Jordan on Lock in the 1996 NBA Finals, but only after ‘Mr. Sonic ‘is back

Despite Michael Jordan’s assertion in the Last Dance that he had “no problem” with Gary Payton in the 1996 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Seattle SuperSonics, the numbers show the opposite.

Payton kept MJ at his worst shooting percentage (41.5%) in a single series of Finals. The glove was a good size (6ft 4in) for a leader, with quick hands and elite instincts. These attributes helped him defend one of the game’s top scorers, although Payton haughtily suggested he was keeping more demanding players than Jordan.

However, even the proud Payton admitted in 1996 that the return of a veteran teammate played a critical role in his ability to tire Jordan and downsize.

Michael Jordan dominated Gary Payton and the SuperSonics without Nate McMillan on the floor

Michael Jordan and the Bulls hound accompanied Gary Payton and the SuperSonics in the first three games of the 1996 NBA Finals.

Jordan scored 28 points on 9 of 18 shots in Game 1 before filling in the stats sheet with 29 points, eight assists and six rebounds in Game 2. This line could have been even better if MJ hadn’t missed it. six free throws. It got worse for GP and the Sonics in Game 3, as Jordan scored 36 points and helped the Bulls take control of the series.

Mike seemed too dominant for Seattle. However, the Sonics missed a crucial play in the backcourt.

Veteran guard Nate McMillan played five minutes in Game 1 before a sciatic nerve problem that had plagued him for weeks resurfaced. At this point, McMillan played a reserve role. But he meant a lot to the Sonics as a two-time All-Defensive member and former stealing champion, as well as someone who could play more of a traditional point guard and allow Payton to excel as a combo guard.

Seattle looked helpless without McMillan on the ground. That changed in Game 4, as the man whose tenure and dedication earned him the nickname “Mr. Sonic “has returned, allowing Payton more freedom at both ends of the floor and giving the Sonics a glimpse of hope into the series.

Payton credited McMillan’s return with helping him wear out Jordan

Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan (L) looks to make a basket as Seattle SuperSonics goalie Gary Payton (R) defends in a game in March 1996 | Vincent Laforet / AFP via Getty Images

Nate McMillan had little to no flexibility going into Game 4 of the 1996 NBA Finals, but he wanted to give it a shot. Mr. Sonic’s return had a huge impact on Gary Payton.

Payton showed more activity. He scored 21 points, adding 11 assists and two steals. McMillan scored eight points and had three assists in just over 14 minutes, occasionally spelling GP and giving The Glove the chance to knock Jordan off screens and force him to put some energy into defense. He paid dividends. Michael Jordan shot just 6 of 19 from the field as Seattle avoided elimination with a 107-86 victory over the Bulls.

When asked after the game why this game was so different for the Sonics, Payton offered a simple explanation.

“Nate, Nate McMillan,” Payton said, via the New York Times.

The Bulls also recognized McMillan’s impact on the contest. Scottie Pippen noticed how Mr. Sonic’s presence seemed to uplift Payton.

“[McMillan] gave them a big boost, ”Pippen said, via the Baltimore Sun. “Gary was a lot more active on offense, and Nate gave him some rest.”

The Glove felt rejuvenated. Jordan rediscovered his scoring touch in Game 5, but Payton and the Sonics mostly kept him out of the paint and often forced him to rely on his teammates. For his part, McMillan played 21 more quality minutes.

Even in Game 6, when the Bulls closed the series at home, Jordan had one of the worst shooting nights of his career. That says a lot about Payton’s ability to make MJ work on both sides, which McMillan made possible just by being on the floor.

Mr. neglected

Achieving a nickname like “Mr. Sonic” may seem like a prop to fame, but that’s not the case with McMillan.

Payton became a star in Seattle almost as soon as he put on the sneakers and started talking with legends like Isiah Thomas. By then, however, McMillan was already one of the NBA’s best defensive guards and a solid playmaker to boot.

McMillan averaged 8.6 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals in his second season alone. He’s never had much as a goalscorer, averaging just 7.6 points. Still, the trend for sound distribution, rebounding, and defense remained. The current Atlanta Hawks head coach averaged 6.2 points, 6.6 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals in his first nine seasons before injuries disrupted his career.

Payton and Sean Kemp were the headliners of the best era of basketball Sonics. However, the underrated McMillan deserves more credit for his contributions to the franchise and his impact on The Glove. Even a hobbled McMillan prompted GP to push Michael Jordan and the Bulls to the limit.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball reference.

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