Classic NBA Playbook – 1988 Michael Jordan vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

by Andrew Kennedy

Since the NBA finished up and there’s only been baseball, I haven’t felt the urge to write much. But I’m now living in a new apartment and finally have DVR and NBATV (a deadly combo for me and possibly my relationship). If there’s any other NBA blog out there that I’d like to model this one after, it is Sebastian Pruiti’s NBA Playbook.

He breaks down basketball in blog form as good as anyone out there and made this year’s playoffs a ton more interesting as if they weren’t already interesting enough. I plan to start a portion of this blog centering around a classic version of what Pruiti does. There might not be a season this year but I’m okay with that if NBATV keeps rerunning so many great games every day and NBA 2K12 is as good as it probably will be. Dedicating a portion of this blog to some classic NBA playbook breakdown seems like as good a way as any to spend my time.

Let’s start with…

Michael Jordan – 1988 First Round Game 5 vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

This was Michael Jordan’s first career playoff series victory. He was approaching his prime at this juncture of his career, averaging a 32-8-8 during the regular season and had just received rookies Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. This isn’t the game where he hit the game-winning jump shot from the top of the key as time expired but rather one where he faced pretty tough defense but still made it look easy all-around.

The Bulls had home-court advantage for this series and MJ was pretty unstoppable as Chicago won the first two games in the series scoring 55 and 50 points in those games. Here in Game 5 even though Cleveland had won the previous two games, it was evident that they had no idea how to contain MJ and were lost in attempting to do so quite a bit.

The game was close throughout but the Bulls started to take control in the second quarter as MJ got going. He would score two times on backdoor cuts where the Cleveland defense was caught overplaying and trying to anticipate what MJ would do, and he made them pay with his athleticism.

The first comes from a set that Chicago quickly got in after a Cleveland miss and transition opportunity. While MJ handled the ball a lot for this team, he also played a ton off the ball and that is where he did most of his damage in this game. The set starts with Grant setting a downscreen and Pippen popping out to the right wing where Sam Vincent gets him the ball. Vincent then clears to the right corner and Grant posts his man while Dave Corzine begins to move and set a downscreen for MJ.


MJ had just been burning Cleveland defenders after coming up from downscreens a few possessions earlier, in particularly one play where he came up making a catch on the right wing and Ron Harper lazily gambled to make a steal from behind only to have MJ penetrate and get to the line. Here Craig Ehlo is already face guarding MJ in anticipation of him coming off a screen somewhere.


Ehlo is trying this because he normally wouldn’t be able to keep up with MJ off ball screens if he played him straight up. But playing the ball blindly leaves Ehlo over feeling for the Corzine screen and not focused enough on playing MJ soundly. MJ not using the Corzine screen was designed in the play and MJ sells his cut and also tosses Ehlo out of the way as well on his way to an easy lob catch from Pippen.


Chicago does a good job of using MJ off the ball where he is working very hard in this game and able to abuse a slower defender in space. The last thing a defense wants is to give MJ easy buckets and allow him to get going offensively.

The next play is from almost the same exact set except this time MJ starts on the right wing and first receives a back screen from Oakley. After the screen Oak pops out to receive the pass from Vincent while a screen the screener look seems to be put into action underneath the rim with Corzine, MJ and Ehlo.


Once again Ehlo is face guarding MJ and once again MJ sells the downscreen being set by Corzine and executes the backcut thanks to some superior athletic ability.


Ehlo is no match for MJ and after two demoralizing buckets like this has no chance against him the rest of the game. Ehlo was stuck on MJ early in this one after Harper picked up two quick fouls, both on MJ. Cleveland seemed completely out of ideas when it came to guarding MJ in this game although they ended up doing a decent job, as the announcers would note late in the fourth quarter. Instead of ever trying to play him straight up they were either overplaying him anticipating a screen off the ball or going for steals from behind after he made the catch. MJ was patient enough in both instances to burn Cleveland all game.


The only time they had success was a few instances where they doubled and MJ left his feet or his teammates weren’t in position to make the Cavs pay. They tried doubling MJ often throughout the game but sometimes it didn’t work if the double came too soon and gave MJ room to dribble back and review the floor to make a good pass.

Chicago went to a screen and roll set four times in the second half where MJ started on the left wing and just went two-man game with either Oak or Corzine. On two of the plays MJ scored, once when Harper reached from behind and the screen wasn’t hedged and the second when MJ got rid of the ball as the double came too early before the screen and it eventually swung back to him after Harper was caught lazily watching the ball move and didn’t recover back to MJ.

The two times Cleveland stopped Chicago on this play they doubled MJ right after he came off the pick with the ball forcing him to get rid of it without quickly. On one occasion Harper was able to get one of his long arms on the pass and come up with the steal. The second time MJ kicked out and the ball eventually swung to an open Vincent in the right corner, who missed the jumper.

The lesson is easy: it was pretty much impossible to guard MJ at this point in his career and Cleveland was obviously already somewhat demoralized in their attempt to do so from earlier in the series. Also MJ literally won this game on his own with only a little help from rookie Pippen. Cleveland was the better team but was not disciplined and patient enough in how they defended MJ throughout the game. They were unable to bottle up the success they did have in defending MJ and do it when it mattered down the stretch.

Where we can see this in NBA 2K12

The pre-championship winning late 80’s Bulls will be in the game as well as this Cavs team. One of the best parts about 2K these last two years has been the ability to call specific plays for players on the fly. There is going to be more play options available in 2K12 than 2K11 so hopefully we can get more sets for MJ and some that I saw in this game.

Last year there was a lot of Iso sets in the Bulls’ playbooks for MJ. While he did isolate some in the game it wasn’t nearly as much as you would need to if calling the plays in 2K11. What I’d like to see is a majority of MJ moving off ball screens and multiple plays from the same looks as well as different options.

Different options would be the best thing because that would be the most realistic to have your players reading the defense but I’m not sure we’re going to get that this year. So instead of three different Iso sets and one pick-and-roll play for MJ in 2K12 I’m hoping for at least three sets where he’s coming off screens and moving without the ball and then a couple where he is playing a two man game on the wing.

How this effects LeBron

This needs to be at the end of every NBA article I write from now. Really, it’s always all about LeBron and I always think about him when watching any basketball these days, especially MJ games.

What I took away the most regarding LeBron from this game was how much MJ worked off the ball and how little of that LeBron does. This is an example of how the game has changed throughout the years as well as how we remember incorrectly certain things in history.

I always heard that MJ did a ton of isolation and wasn’t much of a team player around this time in his career. I didn’t expect to see him working relentlessly without the ball and running off screens like a Ray Allen or Reggie Miller on steroids.

For the Heat this year, they win the title if LeBron does a little of this. Everyone talks about LeBron developing a post game but his movement without the ball is far more important. Now he is useless when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands and this is a problem when he plays alongside Wade.

Watching MJ abuse Cleveland moving off screens and doing so mostly because of superior athleticism and endurance made me think how LeBron could do the exact same thing.

We will see if this ever happens. I doubt it and think he will always only be someone who needs the ball to hurt you and think he is acting like Magic Johnson by doing so.

All screenshots are taken from NBATV.