DENVER (CBS4) – The game still feels like a dream for former Denver Nuggets star LaPhonso Ellis. On Feb. 4, 1996, the Chicago Bulls came to McNichols Arena riding high with a 41-3 record and an 18-game winning streak.
The Denver Nuggets were the complete opposite of the Bulls, coming in with an 18-26 record and only winners of two of their last nine games. Despite the losing record, the Nuggets had confidence they could pull off the upset at “Big Mac” mainly because of their secret weapon.
“We had a unique player, obviously not the status of Michael (Jordan) or Scottie (Pippen), but we had a unique player of our own on the offensive end and that was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf,” Ellis said.
Abdul-Rauf went off, scoring 23 of his 32 points in the first half and hitting nine of his 15 first half shots. The Nuggets blitz the Bulls defense and stormed out to a 66-35 advantage with 3:05 left in the second quarter.
“If you told me that we would have a 31-point lead over Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, I would have told you, you were crazy. But that’s exactly what we did,” Ellis said.
The Nuggets went into halftime up 68-43, a 25-point lead over the eventual NBA champions. Eliis remembers the locker room being more businesslike than jovial as then-Nuggets head coach Bernie Bickerstaff and his coaching staff, warned his team of the run the Bulls could make in the second half.
“I recall those guys going, ‘You know guys, this is a game of runs, momentum and ebbs and flows,’” Ellis recalled. “’Obviously we had ours. Can we do what we need to do to withstand their run?'”
Bickerstaff’s fears came true as Jordan started to heat up. He scored 22 of his 39 points in the third quarter as the Bulls went on a 23-2 run. Surprisingly, the Nuggets once 31-point advantage evaporated as Pippen’s three-point play put Chicago up, 85-84 with 11:27 to play in the game.
“We threw everything at him,” Ellis said of Jordan’s third-quarter scoring. “Scottie was able to get out in transition and he got fouled and did a 360-layup and kind of shaking his head. Part of me was like ‘Uh Oh!'”
In a seesaw fourth quarter, the Nuggets withstood the Bulls final push and went on a 15-5 run of their own to recapture the lead for good. Denver scored the final four points as the Nuggets upset the Bulls 105-99.
“The resiliency of that group, our group. To be able to hang in there get some stops when we needed to down the stretch when we needed to. It was just an incredible experience,” Ellis said.
The game was important for both teams. The win gave the Nuggets their 800th victory in NBA history, and it was the last time the Nuggets beat the Jordan-led Bulls in Denver. Jordan finished with a 4-7 record in the 11 games he played in Denver with Chicago.
As for the Bulls, this was their only loss to a team that finished the season with a below .500 record. Chicago ended the year 72-10, setting the NBA record for the most wins in a season. The Bulls held the record until the Golden State Warriors went 73-9 in the 2015-16 season. But Ellis believes if the Nuggets didn’t upset the Bulls then Chicago would have pushed the record to a mark no one would have been able to reach.
“The question is if had we not done it, would they have been able to run off an additional two, three of four, which would maybe put them at 76 and maybe out of range of even being touched by the Golden State Warriors? I say it had to be the most significant win especially at McNichols on our home floor. There’s no question about it,” Ellis said.