Fierce rivalries have played a prominent role in the history of the Chicago Bulls’ franchise. Battles with teams such as the Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics will go down as some of the NBA’s greatest matchups. They have featured some of the most infamous moments in NBA history.
Who can deny the bitterness between Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas? It began with the infamous NBA All-Star Game freeze-out in 1985. Afterwards, the passion that they played with fueled their teams. They fought hard and demanded the same fight and competitiveness out of their teammates.
That is how rivalries are born. It is rivalries like those that helped make the NBA what it is today. Although NBA feuds are not what they used to be according to TNT analyst and Hall of Famer Reggie Miller and others, they are a necessary part of the game.
NBA fans are always able to recall their favorite rivalries. When television networks promote their big NBA matchups, they highlight the rivalries that fans crave. The matchup is always the team that you love versus the team that you love to hate. The fact that those two teams hate each other is icing on the cake.
Who are the Bulls' most despised rivals? What is the history behind the rivalries and are they still as prominent today, as they were when they began.
All win totals are up to date as of 11-24-2012
Head-to-Head Meetings: Tied at 117
This once-heated rivalry began in the late 1980s. At that time, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and the rest of the Piston players tormented the Bulls. Those Piston teams were dubbed the “Bad Boys” in the late 1980s.
About winning a NBA championship before facing the Detroit Pistons in the 1991 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, Michael Jordan said:
Winning a championship is not something I need to justify my place in history, because if I had to stop playing basketball tomorrow, I'd still feel blessed to have had a great career. But yes, winning a championship is very important. It's a void I want to fill. It's important to me, it's important to my teammates, and it's important to the city of Chicago. For all of those reasons, I'd love to win a championship. And I'd love to do it this year.
On their way to two NBA titles, the “Bad Boys” eliminated the Bulls in consecutive seasons. The Bulls eventually had to defeat their hated rivals in order to win their first NBA Championship.
An infamous moment in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals highlighted the Bulls-Pistons feud of the early 1990s.
Several members of the “Bad Boys” stormed off the basketball court without shaking hands with their counterparts. It was the last time the Bulls had to face the “Bad Boys” in the playoffs.
The Bulls would go on to win six NBA Championships in eight seasons, dominating the 1990s. The Pistons would win another title in 2006.
With the Pistons no longer contenders, the rivalry is not as heated as it once was.
Head-to-Head Meetings: 113-91 Celtics
The Bulls-Celtics rivalry goes back to the Michael Jordan-Larry Bird days.
With Bird nearly at the end of his career, he led the Celtics to several victories in the late 1980s. The tide turned at the start of the 1990s once the Bulls began championship run.
The rivalry ended after Bird retired in 1992.
After a string of down years for both teams, the rivalry was reborn during the 2009 NBA Playoffs.
The two teams faced each other in the first round. Many observers considered the seven-game series one of the greatest playoff series in the past 25 years because of its overtime games. This seesaw matchup featured multiple clutch performances and impressive playing from breakout stars Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose.
Several scuffles happened during this heated playoff matchup. This included Celtics guard Rajon Rondo shoving Kirk Hinrich into the scorer’s table in Game 6 of the seven-game series.
Regarding the shoving match, Hinrich said, (quotes via dailyherald.com):
It was just a basic scuffle. I was just trying to box him out. I guess he thought I was doing too much so he grabbed my arm and threw me away. I went back and pushed him. I don't know who it was who came between us. It was one of those things you get caught up in the moment.
The Bulls showed solidarity despite losing in the Game 7. It was this born-again rivalry that helped the Bulls develop into the team that lead the NBA in wins for consecutive seasons.
Head-to-Head Meetings: 86-74 Bulls
The Bulls' rivalry with the Indiana Pacers remind some of a battle between siblings. Two teams, similar in playing styles, fought each other every season since their existence began. Both the Bulls and Pacers have battled for supremacy of the NBA Central for the last few decades. The Bulls and Pacers took turns winning the division along with the Pistons.
The rivalry began in earnest with Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller facing each other in the NBA Playoffs during the 1990s.
Those battles featured two of the NBA’s top players.
No player got under the skin of Jordan the way that Miller did. Miller matched Jordan’s competitiveness, play for play. As they performed, so did their teammates. Although the Pacers did not defeat the Bulls in the playoffs during the 1990s, the Pacers pushed the Bulls to the brink, much like a rival is supposed to do.
Most recently, the Bulls faced the Pacers in the 2011 NBA Playoffs. The Bulls won the series 4-1 but it was not an easy series. The Pacers, despite having the worst record of the teams who qualified for the playoffs, played up to the Bulls' level.
Each game was decided by less than 10 points with the exception of the Bulls’ 116-89 victory in Game 5.
The Pacers found a weakness in the Bulls’ armor: physical play. Using their frontcourt size, the Pacers were able to push the Bulls to the brink.
The Bulls escaped the series 4-1 but not without a fight.
After a win last season, the Pacers began celebrating before leaving the basketball court. This act riled up the Bulls. It also prompted Derrick Rose to make a bold declaration.
I'll never forget how they celebrated just from winning this game. I can't wait to play them again.
Pacers head coach Frank Vogel took to the airwaves on ESPN Radio’s “The Scott Van Pelt Show” to defend the actions of his team.
I don't know if we really celebrated any more than a lot of teams celebrated when they get a road win. I know they've got a couple guys on their team who celebrate on every play. I just think it's the thrill of victory.
If they want to add some spice to the rivalry, we welcome that. Rivalries are fun. Winning is fun. It's all good.
With both players injured, the rivalry will not be the same.
Head-to-Head Meetings: 132-108 Bulls
The rivalry took form in the late 1980s, but boiled over in the 1990s. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen faced the Patrick Ewing-led New York Knicks in many epic battles. There was nothing like the “Windy City” versus the “Big Apple” matchups.
Over the course of this rivalry, fans would often watch as the players would have to get out the ice packs for their wounds.
The Bulls-Knicks rivalries featured pushing, shoving, punching and kicking.
As the teams began their rebuilding process in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the rivalry simmered down.
The rivalry was reborn in 2010 after the Knicks acquired forward Carmelo Anthony via trade from the Denver Nuggets. Both teams were competitive at the same time for the first time since the Bulls’ dynasty years.
Derrick Rose embraced the idea of the possible renewed Bulls-Knicks rivalry:
I really don't know. I hope so. I think we don't have a rivalry yet, but this team right here that they have… they have a good team. A good, young team, where if this does become a rival, it will be going on for a long time.
The renewal of the once-heated rivalry is a welcomed concept, as the two teams have not been competitive at the same time since the Bulls’ dynasty years.
Head-to-Head Meetings: 66-48 Bulls
This rivalry began in the 1992 NBA Playoffs, during which the Bulls swept the Miami Heat 3-0. At the time, the Heat were on the rise with Glen Rice and Rony Seikaly among the faces of the team.
The Bulls dominated the early years of this rivalry, especially in the postseason. The Heat did not defeat the Bulls in the playoffs until the 2006 NBA Playoffs. The team led by Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal wound up winning the NBA Championship.
The Bulls avenged their playoff loss the following season, eliminating the Heat in the first round of the 2007 NBA Playoffs. They swept the Heat 4-0.
This rivalry was reborn after LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Wade and the Heat in the 2010 free agency period. Instantly, the Heat were inserted as the favorites to win the NBA title and the Bulls were among their adversaries.
To some, the Bulls-Heat rivalry reminded them of the Bulls-Pistons battles.
Regarding the two rivalries, current Bulls’ television announcer and former player Stacey King said:
You don't see too many rivalries that marvel that type of rivalry anymore. The league has kind of gotten away from that. You're talking about two teams that really didn't like each other. We genuinely disliked Detroit, they genuinely disliked us, the cities disliked each other. So it ran a lot deeper than basketball. But with this team and Miami, there's no hatred.
Bulls.com writer Sam Smith also shared his take on the feud:
There was a genuine dislike between Chicago and Detroit that doesn't exist in the NBA pretty much anymore because of all the postgame shaking hands and hugging and all that stuff. There was no hugging between those teams. When the Pistons won [an NBA championship] first and the Bulls aimed at them, there was this lingering dislike and rivalry that doesn't really exist toward Miami.
The Bulls and Heat faced each other in the 2011 NBA Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat went on to win 4-1.
With all of the signs pointing to an Eastern Conference Finals rematch last season, Derrick Rose tore his ACL and the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs by the Philadelphia 76ers.
A healthy Rose would keep the rivalry intact, but with no date set for his return, the rivalry will take a step back.
Head-to-Head Meetings: 55-53 Bulls
Damian Lillard’s dunk, seen here, at the closing seconds of the Trailblazers 102-94 win against Bulls angered several Bulls’ players. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson attempted to approach Lillard, but they were stopped by his Trailblazer teammates.
Both Lillard and the Bulls' Nate Robinson discussed the dunk with the media:
When I caught the ball, I didn't know what to do, honestly. I was just like, Man, I'm here by myself, I don't know what to do. I didn't mean no disrespect to them or anything but now I know just dribble the ball out. When I caught it, like I said, I didn't know what to do, so that's what I did. It looked like they were running toward me still, so next time I just know to dribble it out. I didn't mean no disrespect to them.
I just told him, That’s not the right play, dawg. Just dribble the ball out. You all have got the victory already, stuff like that. Everybody around the league watches that. That pisses people off. You're losing already, then you're going to finish it off with the dunk at the end. That's how, you could say, flagrant fouls and things like that happen. You don't want anything like that to happen to anybody in the league, where guys kind of hold grudges about things like that. But it's a part of basketball. It happens. It's not a big deal, but it's just something that you don't. I just told him, That's not the right play, dawg. You had a good game, just dribble it out and then, we go on our way.Take our 'L' like a man.
This is how rivalries begin. Most times, one single play can ignite a team’s competitive spirit. Lillard’s dunk will not go forgotten in the minds of the Bulls, even if it was a rookie mistake.
Keep an eye on the calendar for the Bulls' final meeting of the season against the Trailblazers. The game is on March 21. If one of the Bulls’ players attempts a hard foul on Lillard, we will have a new rivalry on our hands.
The NBA could use a few more rivalries.
Head-to-Head: 117-103 Bulls
There are fewer rivalries in the NBA these days.
The Bulls have only faced one of their rivals (Celtics) this season, so rekindling most of their feuds will take some time. That will give fans a moment to ponder other potential rivalries.
One potential rival is located about 90 minutes north of Chicago.
The Milwaukee Bucks have played the Bulls close the past few seasons, but the Bucks have lost nine straight contests. The Bucks last victory against the Bulls came on April 6, 2010.
Both the Bucks and Bulls must swap wins in order for their matchup to become a true rivalry. This may happen now that Derrick Rose will be out for an unspecified time.
Head-to-Head: 115-88 76ers
Another team that would make a great rivalry with the Bulls is the Philadelphia 76ers.
It means we're dodging the tougher team. That's what I think... I think we'll be able to compete well against Chicago, and have an opportunity to win the series.
Evan Turner on wanting to face the Bulls in the playoffs last season.
The elements of a feud are there. Doug Collins, head coach of the 76ers used to coach for the Bulls. 76ers swingman Evan Turner has an ongoing feud with Derrick Rose. Their battles go all the way back since their high school days. The 76ers also eliminated the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs last season.
The two teams play each other December 1st. The Bulls will be looking to prove that their playoff loss to the 76ers was just a temporary roadblock.
Their game with the 76ers will be the first of three meetings. Each game will go a long way in deciding whether there is a new rivalry brewing in the NBA.