In the middle-eighties sports in Cleveland began experiencing a renaissance, as the Browns embarked on what would become a five-year playoff run, and as the Cavaliers began putting together the pieces of what would be a decade of success. While the Cavaliers never added another division title to the one they had won in 1976, until just last year, they did well enough to make the playoffs themselves several times.
Unfortunately for both teams, there was one nemesis, one psychological mountain, that needed to be climbed, and, sadly, neither team was able to scale the heights and conquer the foe when it mattered. For the Browns, it was, of course, the Denver Broncos, and more specifically John Elway, who not once, not twice, but three times, snuffed out a Browns season on the very threshold of a Super Bowl. To this day, the Browns, even as a reincarnated team, have yet to approach those heights again.
And the Cavaliers had the Chicago Bulls - they had their own personal abominable snowman who kept them from the summit: Michael Jordan, who not once, not twice, not even three times, but four times, walked off the court a winner in the game which sent the Cavs home for the summer. And then to add insult to injury, when MJ was finally (though not permanently) "gone", Cleveland one more time lost to Chicago in the post-season.
Here is a brief look back at those five years of Cavaliers-Bulls match-ups...along with a fervent wish that the sixth time will be the charm.
1. The Cavaliers sneaked into the playoffs in 1987-88, and met the Bulls in the first round. There was reason for hope, as the two teams had split their six regular season games. The Bulls took immediate charge with two victories in Chicago, but the Cavs stormed back and won the next two at the Coliseum, leaving a winner-take-all fifth game in Chicago. A fierce effort culminated in a 107-101 loss, and the Cavs were one-and-done in the playoffs...but someone had to lose, and there was always next year.
2. In 1988-89 the Cavaliers put together what, until then, was their best season ever, at 57-25, finishing second in the Central. The good news was that the first place team was not the Bulls, and Cleveland was high on the possibilities in the rematch in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, for after all, Cleveland had home court advantage, and had beaten the Bulls all six times they had played in the regular season. The optimism lasted one game...a Bulls win which snatched home court advantage away in the best-of-five. Cleveland took the second game, tying the Series, then lost game three in Chicago and was on the precipice with a frayed rope in their hands...and then won game four, a pulsating overtime affair on the Bulls' home court, and suddenly all was well again as the Cavs came home for the deciding game. A back-and-forth war ensued, but the Cavaliers took the lead with three seconds to go on a basket by Craig Ehlo, as the Coliseum crowd erupted. The Bulls inbounded to Jordan, he dribbled and then rose and seemed to float as Ehlo desperately tried to get a hand up...and The Shot entered the lore of horror in Cleveland, joining the recent The Drive and The Fumble.
3. The 1991-92 Cavs again won 57 games, and this time avoided the Bulls until the Eastern Conference Finals, as they eliminated the Nets in four out of five and then went the distance before beating the Celtics in seven. In the first game of the ECF, in Chicago, the Cavaliers fell flat and lost by 14, and the grumbling began...then, out of nowhere, the Cavs conjured up a 107-81 shellacking of the Bulls in the Windy City and suddenly had home court advantage...for one game, as the Bulls returned the favor in game three and again took control of the series. Another Cleveland rout followed in game four...evening the series once again, at two. There was no way of knowing that what would follow would be a nine-game playoff losing streak to the Bulls. Chicago won convincingly in game five and then took the sixth and final game in the closest contest of the series, a 99-94 Bulls win which, for the third time in five years, sent the Cavs home for the summer.
4. The Cavaliers, ever the glutton for punishment, it seemed, met the Bulls in the next two seasons as well. In 1992-93 the Cavs again knocked out the Nets in the first round, and this time met the Bulls in the Eastern semi-finals. Although three of the games were close, it was really no contest, as the Bulls swept Cleveland and its 54-28 record aside in four and once again marched on in the playoffs over the ashes of the Cavaliers.
5. Finally, in 1993-94, the Cavaliers took a 47-win season into the playoffs, where...surprise, surprise...the Bulls awaited in round one. First-round series were still best-of-five, and Chicago again swept the Cavs, who prolonged their torment this time into a game-three overtime, which the Bulls won, in Cleveland, 95-92. This one hurt a little more, because Michael Jordan had "retired" and it was hoped that Cleveland might stand a chance against a Bulls team led by Scottie Pippen. Alas, nothing of the sort came to pass.
So five times in seven seasons the Cavs bowed out against the Bulls, There were three more playoff appearances in the pre-LeBron James era, but in all three Cleveland was unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs by other teams in the first round. By them the Browns had declined, although they had one moment of glory in the 1994 season and actually won a playoff game against the Patriots before...well, you know. But, boy, weren't the Indians something by then in their shiny new Jacobs Field...before, of course, The Home-run and before The Blown Save.
It is worth noting that, of the five playoff losses to the Bulls, the deciding game in the last four was on Cleveland's court.
It is time to lay the past to rest and to exorcise the demons against the Bulls. This is not the 80s and the 90s anymore, and this time, Michael Jordan plays for the Cavaliers.
Hurry Saturday, and GO CAVS!!