While we were all locked into quarantine throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, lots of us huddled around Netflix to look at “The Last Dance,” a docuseries in regards to the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan was king then, and all roads to glory went through him.
During that run to their second three-peat of the last decade, the Bulls found themselves squaring off against the Charlotte Hornets within the second round. We saw a clip of Jordan between Games 2 and three after the Hornets surprised the Bulls by taking Game 2 in Chicago to steal home-court advantage. And throughout the game, Jordan’s former backcourt mate, B.J. Armstrong, had some trash talk for Jordan.
As we watched MJ contemplate this moment between Games 2 and three, he smoked a cigar and held a baseball bat in his locker. He was talking to his teammates, but he was really just talking to himself and harnessing the ability of petty — something nobody weaponized as masterfully as him to offer much more motivation to finish a task, let alone a task of beating down the underdog in a playoff series matchup.
“Let’s see if that trash talk starts when it’s 0-0 as a substitute of a five-, six-point lead,” Jordan professed as he put the cigar in his mouth and gripped the bat with two hands. “That’s where it starts. That’s the sign of an excellent man, in case you can talk s— when it’s a fair rating.”
Jordan would go on to steer his Bulls to a few straight wins, averaging 30 points per game over those three victories. The Bulls won by 14, 14 and nine points — and we didn’t hear much the remaining of that series from the Hornets. The message had been sent — a message as old as time on this planet of sports. Don’t give extra motivation to your opponents. Don’t give them bulletin board material.
The ebb and flow of that series was very home-heavy. The Suns won the primary two games in Phoenix, beating the Mavs by seven and 20 points, respectively. The Mavs responded with two wins in Dallas to even up the series at 2-2. Once they went back to Phoenix for Game 5, the Mavs were embarrassed. After getting an early eight-point lead in the primary eight minutes of the sport, the Mavs completely unraveled. The Suns held a three-point lead at halftime then completely blitzed Dallas in the ultimate 24 minutes.
The Suns ended up winning the sport by 30 points, looking like things could be over soon for the Mavs. Devin Booker talked to Luka Dončić throughout the sport, similar to the 2 of them had been exchanging words throughout the series. Toward the top of the fourth quarter, we saw a skirmish between Bismack Biyombo and Marquese Chriss, as everybody puffed out their chest in those moments.
The Suns were a team that loved to speak trash, and we all know Dončić is rarely a stranger to throwing some words around a basketball court. Booker and Dončić had a moment in Game 5 wherein he took some hard contact on a foul, laid face down on the ground for 11 seconds, smiled on the person recording on their phone, went back to face down for an additional couple beats, rolled over to his back so his teammates could help him out and called it, “The Luka Special,” in reference to Dončić embellishing foul calls throughout his profession.
Devin Booker called it the “Luka Special” after getting fouled and lying on the ground pic.twitter.com/Y78CSggDAH
— Motion Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) May 11, 2022
Because the Mavs left the court in defeat, Dončić began exclaiming this for anybody to listen to.
“Everybody acting tough once they up,” Dončić said. “Everybody acting tough.”
It paraphrased and echoed those words from Jordan 24 years prior, words that happened the yr before Dončić was even born in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The difference in those two uttering the identical sentiment is pretty severe though. Jordan was established as the best player of all time. His Bulls team was a large favorite over the Hornets, and a two-point loss that included trash talk from a former teammate when the Hornets were up 5 – 6 didn’t exactly raise the stakes of the situation. Well, not for anybody but Jordan’s competitive nature.
Dončić, then again, had just been embarrassed in the ultimate 24 minutes of motion. His team got destroyed by the top-seeded Suns — a team that had won 12 more games than the Mavs to earn the highest record within the NBA. He was responding to the kerfuffle between Biyombo and Chriss, but he was also sending a message for Booker, Jae Crowder and anybody else to listen to. Not friends. Not former teammates. Enemies within the series. Thorns within the Mavs’ sides. The guillotine hanging above their season’s neck.
Dončić, while a improbable player and one who projects to be a historic figure in skilled basketball when his profession is over a protracted time from now, hasn’t had playoff success. His one series win in three years? A six-game series win over the imploding Utah Jazz. Prior to that, two first-round series exits by the hands of the Clippers, including a seven-game series loss the previous postseason when the Mavs went up 3-2 within the series. And yet, he echoed Jordan’s indirect challenge.
Everybody acts tough once they’re up.
In Game 6, the Mavs trounced the Suns in Dallas. Dončić had 33 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, 4 steals and only one turnover in 35 minutes. Dallas was plus-15 in his minutes on the court, won every quarter and ended up taking the night with a 27-point victory. However the Mavs still had to return to Phoenix for Game 7. The house team had won every game of the series, and it’s rare a team loses a Game 7 on its home floor. Because the NBA/ABA merger in 1976-77, only 26 teams had lost a Game 7 at their home arena in 106 games.
What happened in Game 7 was truly astonishing. Not only did Dallas win the sport in Phoenix, however the Mavs completely kicked the butts of the Suns that night.
Dončić backed up his tough talk after Game 5 by dropping 35 points in half-hour of motion. The Mavs led by as many as 46 points in that game. The Suns crowd was stunned pretty early on. Phoenix had a 10-point deficit after the primary quarter. No big deal. Those get erased on a regular basis within the NBA. The 30-10 second quarter by the Mavs put Dallas up 57-27 at halftime. That … often doesn’t get erased.
what else doesn’t get erased? This image of Dončić trolling Booker throughout the first half when the Mavs were annihilating the 64-win season of Phoenix within the desert.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) May 16, 2022
It was the image of the Suns-Mavs series, as much as Dončić’s spouting that everyone talks tough once they’re up. Booker couldn’t do anything but wear the loss. Take heed to the jeers. See the expressionless faces of his teammates and the Suns fans in the world. Hear the chatter of the Mavs get louder and louder as his season dissipated into the night. Eventually, the Mavs won by 33 points and moved on to their first Western Conference finals since winning the NBA championship in 2011.
By blurting out, “Everybody acting tough once they up,” Dončić needed to deliver over the following two games without much of an NBA history of doing such. Shout that out and are available up empty? The web clowns you until you win a championship — in case you win a championship. But Dončić acted tough when he was down. After which he trolled when he was up, and the series was over. That’s the way you construct a legend and lore.
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(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photo: Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)