The 1991 season and playoffs were Run TMC’s high point. After missing the playoffs in 1990 when rookie Tim Hardaway joined Chris Mullin and Mitch Ritchmond, the Warriors returned to the postseason in 1991 as the #7 seed. In the first round, they faced the #2 seed San Antonio Spurs and their All-Star center David Robinson. In what would become a trend in the franchise’s history, the Warriors shocked the Spurs, upsetting a team many thought could make it to the NBA Finals. This sent Golden State into the Western Conference Semifinals to play against the inter-state rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers.
With Mullin out due to a knee injury, the Lakers would take Game 1 in the Great Western Forum behind Magic Johnson’s 21 points, 17 assists, and 10 rebounds. Mullin would return for Game 2 in Los Angeles to provide Warriors fans with one of the great postseason offensive shows in NBA history.
Head coach Don Nelson’s game plan was on display early, the same one we would see again with the We Believe Warriors team in 2007. In the opening minutes, you saw guard Mitch Richmond switch onto Lakers center Vlade Divac, creating a mismatch and getting a smaller, more active player on a slower big.
While the Lakers clearly bested the Warriors on size and controlling the paint on both ends of the court, Nelson hoped to subvert that through mismatches and crossmatches, mitigating the Lakers’ size advantage with the Warriors’ speed.
It was clear in the first quarter that this was going to be an up-tempo game. There were numerous fast breaks and the ball was constantly being pushed up the floor. This was not exclusive to the Warriors as the Lakers tried to push the pace too, which you see in the following sequence:
After Hardaway’s three pointer, the Lakers immediately pushed the ball up the court with Johnson getting the ball into Sam Perkins’ hands for an easy layup. Both teams preferred style of play was one predicated on movement and pushing the tempo, which made the conditions right for a great offensive battle.
Mullin started the game slow, as the other Warriors contributed more in the scoring department, but he closed the quarter strong. This three-pointer by Mullin, coming on a Hardaway-led fast break, set the tone for the night Mullin would have.
The Warriors would hold a three point lead at the end of the first, largely because of the explosive Hardaway, who finished the quarter with nine points and six assists. The Lakers, meanwhile, were led by James Worthy and Sam Perkins’ scoring rather than Magic Johnson, who only had two points in the first quarter but contributed four assists to help facilitate the Lakers’ offense.
The second quarter saw the Lakers take over the game, outscoring the Warriors by 12 points on their way to a 67-58 lead at halftime. The Lakers’ lead came in part from a 13-2 run in which Worthy and A.C. Green each contributed four points. Worthy set the scoring pace for the Lakers with 20 points in the first half while Johnson contributed 15. The Warriors were led by their Run TMC trio, who scored 70% of the team’s first half points. Mullin led the team at the half, scoring 16 points while Richmond had 14 and Hardaway 11. While the Warriors put up a good fight for most of the first half, one would not have been surprised if the Lakers had continued to pull away and claim the Game 2 victory.
In perhaps the birth of the explosive third quarter that would become a Warriors hallmark years down the line, the team stormed back, outscoring the Lakers by 11 in the third. The Warriors’ scoring surge was led by Mullin, who put on a shooting exhibition in the quarter. Mullin was perfect from the field in the quarter, going six for six with 17 points in the quarter.
The Warriors cut into the halftime deficit through a pair of three-pointers from Hardaway and Mullin. This one, where Hardaway pushed the ball up court after a Byron Scott miss, shows how the Warriors tried to attack the Lakers on offense.
Hardaway’s speed and ability to penetrate drew in the scrambling Lakers defense while Mullin waited at the three-point arc and took the shot without anyone on him.
But Mullin didn’t score solely through spot-up jumpers. Here’s another great play in which he gets the ball from Hardaway, draws contact from the defending Byron Scott, and sinks the jumper.
Though the quarter saw free-flowing offense, it also saw a number of fouls. The Lakers shot 15 more free throws than the Warriors over the course of the game, with Johnson taking an astounding 22 free throws. The Lakers, seeking to exploit the Warriors’ lack of interior size (also seen in their ability to outbound the Warriors, 49-28), attacked the basket, keeping pace with the Warriors by getting to the charity stripe.
Mullin closed the quarter strong, scoring five points in the final minute, including this (dare I say it?) Stephen Curry-esque shot. Mullin gets the ball in the back court, dribbles, and pulls up for a three-point shot right in Worthy’s face.
This mini-surge by Mullin at the end of the quarter capped the Warriors’ comeback and gave them a two-point lead going into the fourth.
The fourth quarter saw the Lakers’ size and rebounding supremacy become more prominent. Elden Campbell, then just a rookie at the beginning of his 15 year NBA career, provided points and rebounds off the bench, taking advantage of the Warriors’ lack of front court strength. Campbell also blocked a layup attempt by Hardaway, pinning it against the backboard that gave the Lakers a stop against the strong Warriors offense.
Los Angeles continued to draw fouls, getting into the bonus early in the quarter. Richmond was a particular victim of this, drawing his sixth foul with seven minutes left, forcing him to leave with 22 points.
After the high-scoring third quarter, which saw both teams combine for 71 points, the game slowed down in the fourth. There were more fouls and more missed shots and the game turned into a bit of a grind (or at least as much of a grind as game that pit Showtime and Run TMC).
Despite the slower pace, Mullin still had a few great shots left in his arsenal. Perhaps the most famous shot from this game came in the final quarter, where Mullin hit the jumper with Johnson guarding him.
Mullin drove on Johnson, getting that sliver of separation before slamming on the brakes and pulling up to drain the jump shot for his fortieth point of the night. He would go on to add one more to end the game with 41.
The game was tied at the three minute mark but the Lakers, with their ability to get rebounds and second-chance points, took a brief two-point lead. However, off of an inbound play, Hardaway crossed up Scott to score an amazing reverse layup and tie the game again.
The Lakers held a four-point lead with 30 seconds to go after a foul-line jumper by Perkins and four free throws from Johnson. But Rod Higgins, after grabbing a rebound on a Tom Tolbert three-pointer, put in a layup while being fouled and made the free throw to cut the Lakers lead to one.
On the ensuing Lakers possession, Worthy missed a jumper (continuing his cold-shooting second half) that rookie Mario Elie rebounded before being fouled by Campbell. An 84.3% free-throw shooter in 1990-91, Elie sank both free throws to give the Warriors a one-point lead with 3.1 seconds left.
The Lakers attempted to inbound the ball to take a final shot to win the game, but Hardaway came up with the enormous defensive play.
Dribbling out the clock after the steal, the explosive point guard tossed the ball into the air and emphatically pumped his fist as the Warriors sealed out the victory.
The shocking win was the Warriors’ first playoff game at the Great Western Forum since 1969. It was also the Lakers’ first loss in the playoffs that season. While Johnson’s 44 points (his playoff career high) was impressive, Mullin was the star that night.
Not only did Mullin tie his career playoff high with 41 points, he shot 76% from the field including a perfect 4-for-4 from three-point range. Johnson, who had a front row seat to Mullin’s performance that night, once said “When God made a basketball player, he just carved Chris Mullin out and said ‘This is a player.’” On that night in the Forum in Los Angeles, Mullin put on an exhibition worthy of the divine and helped the Warriors steal the home-court advantage from the Lakers.
After getting the split in Los Angeles, the Warriors went home and the series shifted to the East Bay. Spirits were high and Warriors fans hoped this magical postseason run could continue. Run-DMC, the rap group that gave the Warriors trio their nickname, even performed before the game in Oakland. However, the Warriors dropped Game 3 to the Lakers after Los Angeles had Worthy guard Mullin, holding him to 14 points and 4-for-14 from the field. The Lakers went on to win Game 4 and clinch the series in Los Angeles in Game 5 on their way to face the Chicago Bulls in the 1991 NBA Finals.
Though the 1991 postseason seemed like it might be the beginning of something big for Golden State, in reality it was the final bright spot for Run TMC. That off-season, Mitch Richmond was traded to the Sacramento Kings for rookie forward Billy Owens. Though the Warriors won 11 more games in 1991-92 and finished with the third best record in the Western Conference, they were upset in the first round by the Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton-led Seattle Supersonics. The Warriors made the playoffs once more with the 1994 Chris Webber team, but the beginning of the team’s decade-long stint in the wilderness of NBA irrelevance was nigh.
But that 1991 Warriors team was special and Mullin’s performance in that Game 2 against Los Angeles, going toe-to-toe with Johnson, Worthy, and the vaunted Showtime Lakers, was one Warriors fans would always remember. Though Run TMC was only around for a brief time, it was still one of the most exciting and fun times to be a Warriors fan and Mullin’s offensive exhibition that night in Los Angeles was just one golden example of how fun Warriors basketball could be.