The Last Dance recap, episodes 3 and 4: Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, and a villain

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The Last Dance may be a documentary in form, but it follows a far more traditional story arc: It is the hero’s journey. With Michael Jordan as the hero.

Every hero’s journey needs a mentor. Enter Phil Jackson. There needs to be a shapeshifter, someone who blurs the line between enemy and friend. Enter Dennis Rodman. And, ultimately, there needs to be a villain to vanquish. Enter Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons.

Episodes 3 and 4 of “The Last Dance” — the ESPN documentary about Jordan and the 1997-98 Bulls, which aired Sunday night — focused on those parts of the journey. And it was a bumpy ride.

Dennis Rodman was the best part of the show so far

Can there just be a “Hangover”-style documentary only about Rodman’s mid-season vacation-turned-bender in Las Vegas?

It would make Tiger King look tame. “It was definitely an occupational hazard to be Dennis’s girlfriend,” was how Carmen Electra put it, which is a mild understatement considering Rodman later faced domestic abuse charges a couple of times.

It was fascinating to watch how Jordan and Scottie Pippen understood how much Rodman helped them on the court, so they worked with his “complex” and impulsive nature. The Bulls needed what he brought to the game. “Dennis Rodman was the f*** up person,” was the brilliant quote from Gary Payton, describing Rodman’s ability to disrupt the opposing offense.

The peak of all things Rodman came in the 1997-98 season for the Bulls (the focus of The Last Dance). While Pippen was out for 35 games to start the season following foot surgery, Rodman took on the responsibilities of the No. 2 role on the team. While Pippen was out, “Dennis was a model citizen to the point where it was driving him f****** insane,” was how Jordan put it. So after Pippen returned, Jackson granted Rodman a 48-hour “vacation” in Las Vegas to blow off steam.

And you thought they didn’t have load management in the ’90s.

Of course, Rodman didn’t come back in 48 hours. Or 72. Or… you get the idea. Jordan had to go to Rodman (why was it Jordan’s job?), knock on the door and send Electra scurrying behind the couch as she tried to hide, and he got Rodman.

Rodman walked back in the door and was good for the rest of the season; he didn’t miss another game.

But long before he was central to the Bulls winning titles, Rodman was central to the Bulls learning some hard lessons.

The Bad Boy Pistons are the villains Jordan needed to overcome

Every heroic epic is only as good as its villain. Star Wars works not because of Luke Skywalker but because of Darth Vader. The best James Bond movies are the ones with the best villains. It’s storytelling 101: without someone (or something) to push the hero to a new level of greatness they didn’t know they could reach, no story arc is compelling.

Enter the Bad Boy Pistons.

Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, John Salley, Bill Laimbeer, and the Pistons are the villains in Jordan’s story. They literally beat down Jordan until he could reach a new level where he was strong enough, the team around him was good enough, and Phil Jackson’s triangle system made Bulls other than Jordan a legitimate threat. It took all that to beat Detroit.

It just took years to get there.

Jordan was unquestionably elite — in 1988 Jordan won both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year — and the Bulls were a team on the rise. The Last Dance talked about how the Bulls climbed past the fast-rising Cleveland Cavaliers, focusing on “the shot” from 1989.

“They had Craig Ehlo on me, which honestly was a mistake,” Jordan said in a moment of brutal honesty. Jordan said Ron Harper played him better — and Harper agreed. Harper said he got in the huddle before that play and begged Lenny Wilkins “coach, I got Michael,” but Wilkens went with Ehlo on Jordan, and the rest was history.

Still in the way were the Pistons and their “Jordan Rules.” What were the Jordan Rules?

“As soon as he steps into the paint, hit him,” was John Salley’s honest answer.

Dennis Rodman was more honest: “Chuck Daly said this is the Jordan Rule: Every time he go to the f****** basket, put him on the ground. When he goes to the basket, he ain’t gonna dunk. We’re gonna hit you and you’re gonna be on the ground. We were trying to physically hurt Michael.”

The core of the rule was don’t let Jordan in the paint, and if he gets there foul him — hard. Because in that era you could. And make sure you did it before he left the ground. It worked.

It forced an evolution in the Bulls, in terms of roster and playing style, plus just commitment — Jordan added 15 pounds of muscle to handle the pounding — to overcome the obstacle.

That’s also how things were then, in an era before player empowerment, shorter contracts, and constant turnover. It took time for a team to learn how to win. The Bad Boy Pistons got their heads handed to them by the Celtics for years until Detroit got good enough to overcome Boston. Then Chicago took its lumps from the Pistons.

The Bulls also needed the right coach to take that step.

Phil Jackson was the coach the Bulls needed

That doesn’t mean Jackson was the one Jordan wanted — MJ was happy with Doug Collins and his Jordan-centric offense.

“I wasn’t a Phil Jackson fan when he first came in. He was coming in to take the ball out of my hands. Doug put the ball in my hands,” Jordan said.

Jackson came in with Tex Winter and the triangle offense. It was what the Bulls needed because it made players other than Jordan a threat, forcing the defense to either spread out or pay the price for loading up on Jordan. It worked, the Bulls offense improved by three points per 100 possessions jumped from 12th to 5th in the league. That still wasn’t enough to beat the Pistons in the playoffs the first year under Jackson.

The next year, the Bulls had the top offense in the NBA, handled the Pistons with ease in the playoffs, and then went on to beat Magic’s Lakers and win a title.

The documentary touches on Jackson’s odd path — from winning titles with the Knicks through coaching in Puerto Rico — to the Bulls bench. But the best mentors, the most interesting leaders, have unconventional paths. Jackson typified that.

And it turns out, typified winning when he was done. Even if he did unconventional things, like give Dennis Rodman a mid-season vacation.

LeBron scores 19 off bench in return, Bulls spoil party with 118-108 win


LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James scored 19 points off the bench in his return from a monthlong injury absence, but Zach LaVine scored 32 points to lead the Chicago Bulls to a 118-108 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.

DeMar DeRozan added 17 points for the Bulls, who easily overcame James’ return for their seventh win in nine games. LaVine hit 11 of his first 14 shots to lead an offensive effort that snapped the Lakers’ three-game winning streak despite the return of the NBA’s career scoring leader.

James sat out 13 games with right foot soreness, missing four weeks during the Lakers’ run at a playoff berth. The team provided few updates on his recovery, and his return came with little advance warning.

“I felt confident in the workouts that I had this week,” James said. “And the day after the workouts, when I woke up, stepped out down off the bed, I could possibly play today. And after my workout early before the game today, I knew I could play.”

For only the second time in his 20-year, 1,958-game NBA career, James wasn’t a starter. He came in as a reserve midway through the first quarter, doing his standard pregame chalk toss while receiving a standing ovation from Lakers fans. James got a field goal in every quarter, and he finished with eight rebounds, three assists and five turnovers in 30 minutes.

“You could see him getting his rhythm, his timing, his finishes, all of that,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “He’s a savvy veteran, one of the greatest ever to do it, so it’s not going to take all that much.”

Chicago largely controlled play despite James’ return, streaking to a 20-point lead in the second quarter. Los Angeles briefly got the lead down to single digits down the stretch, but got no closer.

“There are going to be swings, and that was the encouraging part,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “I’m seeing a response back competitively.”

Patrick Beverley had 10 points and five assists in his first game against the Lakers since they traded him last month. Beverley has been outspoken about his desire to hurt the Lakers’ playoff hopes during this home-and-home series between the teams, but Davis and the other Lakers just smiled at his provocative talk.

When Beverley made a little hook shot with 1:12 left to boost Chicago’s lead back to double digits, Beverley slapped the floor and made the dismissive “too small” gesture sometimes used by NBA players to taunt their opponents, in this case James.

“I was just playing basketball,” Beverley said. “Obviously it’s good to see some old teammates, old coaching staff.”

Troy Brown Jr. and Malik Beasley scored 18 points apiece, but Anthony Davis managed just 15 points and nine rebounds as the Lakers (37-38) failed to get above .500 for the first time since Jan. 9, 2022.

The Lakers were without D’Angelo Russell, who missed his second straight game with a right hip injury. Los Angeles went 8-5 in James’ absence, but his return will force an adjustment of the chemistry built by his teammates in his absence.

“We came out a little flat, turned the ball over early, just weren’t aggressive enough, physical enough,” Ham said.

The Bulls largely controlled Davis even after Nikola Vucevic was ejected in the second quarter with two quick technical fouls when he argued what appeared to be a good call against him. Donovan jokingly wondered how Vucevic could be ejected when he was arguing in his native Serbian.

“Obviously it was a bad decision by me to react the way I did,” Vucevic said. “My mistake. I’m just glad my teammates came through for us. I obviously overreacted, for sure.”

Watch Dončić pick up 16th technical, will result in one-game suspension


Luka Dončić barks at the referees more than any player in the league, and with that he does not get the benefit of the doubt when he’s flirting with the edge of a technical foul.

That caught up with Dončić on Sunday, when he didn’t get a call on a leaning baseline jumper, said something to the nearby official, and racked up his 16th technical this season. That will mean an automatic one-game suspension unless it is rescinded (which is unlikely in this case).

Dončić likely will have to sit out Monday when the Mavericks play the Pacers on the second game of a back-to-back.

This suspension comes on the heels of Dončić being fined $35,000 — but not being given a technical foul at the time — for making a money gesture towards a referee in frustration after another recent Mavericks loss.

Dončić went on to have 40 points Sunday but the Mavericks lost again — their second time in a row to the tanking Hornets, their fourth in a row overall and they have now dropped 7-of-9. That has dropped them out of even the play-in to 11th in the West. The Mavericks need to rack up wins over the season’s final two weeks to even make the postseason.

And they must get that next win Monday without Dončić in the lineup.


UPDATE: LeBron “active,” will make return to court Sunday vs. Bulls

Celebrities At The Los Angeles Lakers Game
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UPDATE: LeBron James has officially been upgraded to active and will make his return to the team on Sunday against the Chicago Bulls.


A couple of days ago, reports said LeBron James hoped to return and play the final few games before the season ended and he said there was no timeline for his return.

In less than 24 hours the Lakers have moved LeBron from “out” last game to “doubtful” and now — as of Sunday morning — questionable for the Lakers game against the Bulls. While nothing is confirmed, these are the steps a team takes before a player returns from injury. LeBron is going to test his foot pregame and make a decision.

LeBron had been pushing to return from a foot tendon injury that had sidelined him for 13 games. The Lakers have gone 8-5 in those games behind the second-best defense in the league over that stretch. What has struggled during those games has been the offense (23rd in the league) and LeBron instantly fixes that. He has averaged 29.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game this season and the Laker offense has been six points per 100 possessions better when he has been on the court.

The Lakers currently sit tied for the No.7/8 seeds in the West, with an outside shot at climbing into the top six (they are 1.5 games back of the Lakers and Clippers who are tied for sixth, but if those teams go 4-3 the rest of the way the Lakers need to go 6-2 over their last eight just to tie them). The Lakers are also one game ahead of the 11-seed Dallas Mavericks and missing out on the playoffs entirely.

The Lakers need wins the rest of the way to secure a playoff spot, and some time to build chemistry heading into the playoffs. Having LeBron James helps with all of that.

Nets thrash Heat, move back up to No.6 seed in East

Brooklyn Nets v Miami Heat
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MIAMI (AP) — All the Brooklyn Nets needed, coach Jacque Vaughn insisted, was one win.

They got it, and made it look easy.

Mikal Bridges scored 27 points, and the Nets opened the third quarter on a 31-6 run on the way to rolling past Miami 129-100 on Saturday night and leapfrogging the Heat back into the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference.

Cam Johnson added 23 points and Spencer Dinwiddie scored 15 for the Nets (40-34), who snapped a five-game slide. They’re only a half-game up on Miami (40-35) in the race for the sixth and final guaranteed playoff berth, but swept the Heat 3-0 this season and would also own a head-to-head tiebreaker.

“We had the mindset coming in that this was a playoff game,” Johnson said.

Max Strus scored 23 for the Heat, all of them in the first half. Tyler Herro scored 23, Jimmy Butler had 18 and Bam Adebayo finished with 16 for the Heat. Miami was outscored 64-31 after halftime.

“We have not been defending at a world-class level, the way we’re capable of … and the second half just became an avalanche,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Strus came off the bench and made his first nine shots, one of them putting Miami up 51-37 midway through the second quarter. Over the next 14 minutes, the Nets outscored Miami 54-24 – completely turning the game around, eventually leading by 32 and, for now, putting Brooklyn in position to escape the play-in tournament that’ll decide the final two East playoff berths.

“You see how this March Madness is and you’re one and you’re done,” Vaughn said. “And that’s part of it. I have not discussed any of the standings with this group. Really, we have gone day to day and tried to get a win.”

The Heat could have moved 1 1/2 games up on Brooklyn for sixth with a win.

“There has been nothing easy about this season and that doesn’t necessarily mean that has to be a negative thing,” Spoelstra said. “You have to embrace the struggle. You have to figure out ways to stay together … but we just got categorically outplayed tonight.”

It was Brooklyn’s second trip to Miami this season. The first was Jan. 8 – which ended up being the last time Kevin Durant played for the Nets, and the last time Durant and Kyrie Irving played together. Durant left that game with a knee injury, then got traded to Phoenix, and Irving has since been dealt to Dallas, as well.

The Nets were 27-13 after that night, second in the East, just a game behind Boston for the best record in the NBA. They’re 13-21 since, yet still have the Heat looking up at them in the standings – which Vaughn insists he hasn’t discussed with his team.

“You need the momentum, the confidence, the reassurance that you can get it done,” Vaughn said. “So, haven’t tried to complicate it more than that.”