Hornets playoffs: Part 4 – Hornets dispatch Hawks, hand “Last Dance” Bulls their first playoff loss in 1998

This is the fourth in a series on Charlotte’s previous NBA playoff seasons. Here’s a look at other stories in the 10-part series:
Part 1 – The Hive Is Alive as the Hornets win their first postseason series in 1993. Link: https://carolinassportshub.com/hornets-playoffs-part-1-the-hive-is-alive-as-the-hornets-win-their-first-postseason-series-in-1993/
Part 2 – Homecourt no advantage against Michael Jordan’s late-season return in 1995. Link: https://carolinassportshub.com/hornets-playoffs-part-2-homecourt-no-advantage-against-michael-jordans-late-season-return-in-1995/
Part 3 – Hard Ball runs into a motivated former Charlotte All-Star in 1997. Link: https://carolinassportshub.com/hornets-playoffs-part-3-hard-ball-runs-into-a-motivated-former-charlotte-all-star-in-1997/
Part 5 – Tragedy mars season, then Iverson too much to overcome in 2000 playoffs
Part 6 – Headband fever sparks longest playoff run in season of off-court turmoil in 2001
Part 7 – Lame duck Hornets again advance to conference semifinals in 2002
Part 8 – Early season trade sparks expansion franchise into playoffs in 2010
Part 9 – First-year head coach, offseason free agent acquisition led to playoffs in 2014
Part 10 – Franchise snaps long postseason losing streak with 2016 postseason play

By Richard Walker

Bobby Phills drives to the basket against the Atlanta Hawks during Charlotte’s first round 1998 playoff series victory. [Getty Images/Hornets.com photo]
After setting a franchise record with 54 wins in the 1996-97 season, the Charlotte Hornets looked to do even more in the 1997-98 season.

Those expectations were established in the summer of 1997 as the team made free agent deals with David Wesley from the Boston Celtics and Bobby Phills from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Adding those pieces to what was already in Charlotte led to a consisent winner that finished 51-31 overall and earned a No. 4 seed in an Eastern Conference race that was dominated by the Chicago Bulls’ “Last Dance” season in which star player Michael Jordan and head coach Phil Jackson knew they were in their final seasons of that dynasty.

Charlotte battled early season injuries to Phills (ankle, groin) and had winning records for all but the last month of the season – and that was a 5-5 April record before the Hornets embarked on the playoffs.

Whether it was the new pro team in town (the NFL’s Carolina Panthers), the roster shuffle or something else, local fans began turning away from the Hornets as evidenced by the end of the organization’s 364-game home sellout streak on Nov. 25, 1997.

Fans still flocked to many games, however, particularly when Charlotte faced Chicago in the playoffs later that season.

Getting that far took more moves by general manager Bob Bass, including one that ended some longstanding acrimony.

Two months after the historic 1997 season ended, Hornets coach Dave Cowens told reporters he felt the condition of Bogues’ left knee was serious enough that he should consider retirement.

When Wesley was signed as Bogues’ point guard replacement a few days later, battle lines were drawn so sharply between Cowens and Bogues that owner George Shinn assured Bogues in August the popular point guard would be allowed to finish his career in Charlotte.

It didn’t happen.

On Nov. 7, 1997, Bogues was traded along with Tony Delk to Golden State for veteran guard B.J. Armstrong.

Charlotte started the first month of the season 9-5, then continued its winning ways with a 9-6 December, 9-7 January and 7-5 February before playing its best basketball of the season while going 12-3 in March.

By then, injuries to Phills, Dell Curry (right calf) and Vlade Divac (right shin bone) had healed and midseason free agent acquisition Vernon Maxwell had been added to the roster.

Maxwell, Curry, Divac, Wesley, Matt Geiger and Glen Rice combined for nine late game-winning shots during the course of the season and Rice was again honored by the NBA – this time all-league third team – as it entered the playoffs with a chip on its shoulder against Atlanta.

What had the Hawks done to Charlotte?

Dave Cowens was in his second season as head coach for the Hornets in the 1997-98 season. [Getty Images/Hornets.com photo]
Atlanta had beaten the Hornets all four times in the regular season, making the Hawks the only team in the league that year to sweep Charlotte.

All that changed in the playoffs as the Hornets won the first two games behind Rice and Anthony Mason; Rice scored 34 points in a 97-87 Game 1 victory and Mason scored nine of his 25 points in the fourth quarter of a 92-85 Game 3 victory.

Playing in the spacious Georgia Dome as the Hawks’ current facility was being built, Charlotte suffered the worst offensive scoring output in league history at that time in Game 3 with 64 points in a 96-64 loss that some thought would give Atlanta second life.

Instead, Mason had 29 points and 14 rebounds and Rice 26 points in a convincing 91-82 Game 4 victory that gave Charlotte a 3-1 series win and a date with the Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

In the opener at Chicago’s United Center, the Hornets twice took 15-point leads in the second quarter before the Bulls scored 16 straight points to take control of the game and win 83-70 behind Jordan’s 35 points.

In Game 2, Charlotte again pushed the Bulls before closing out a series-tying 78-76 victory as former Chicago guard Armstrong hit an 18-footer in front of the Bulls’ bench to sew up the win.

Armstrong’s shot and his reaction to it certainly got the Bulls’ attention and Jordan and his teammates played at another level the next three games to take a 4-1 series victory over Charlotte.

Jordan scored 27, 31 and 33 points, respectively, as the Bulls downed the Hornets 103-89 in Charlotte in Game 3, 94-80 in Charlotte in Game 4 and 93-84 in Chicago in Game 5.

It also ended an era for the Hornets as Curry, Divac and Geiger would leave as free agents in the upcoming offseason.


The 1998 Hornets
Record: 51-31 (4-5 in playoffs)
Head coach: Dave Cowens
Top scorers: Glen Rice 22.3, David Wesley 13.0, Anthony Mason 12.8, Matt Geiger 11.3, Bobby Phills 10.4, Vlade Divac 10.4
Top rebounders: Mason 10.2, Divac 8.1, Geiger 6.2
Notes: Rice again played in the All-Star Game and the Hornets set a franchise record for best home record at 32-9 in an 89-76 win over the Orlando Magic on April 19. Charlotte also had a 10-game winning streak from Games 54 to 63.