A few steps from the summit of the NBA's mountain, the Detroit Pistons suddenly looked down and felt dizzy. The Pistons are a team ideally suited to the role of underdog, and perhaps the pressure of living up to preseason expectations has affected them. They played without interest and lost Game 1 of their Eastern Conference finals to the Chicago Bulls and, even though they won, appeared disorganized in Game 2. Champions are made of sterner stuff.
Despite an 86-80 victory at Chicago Stadium on Monday afternoon, which tied the series at 2-2, the Pistons seemed slightly dazed and confused, fighting to regain the competitive fire and Bad Boy nastiness that stoked them to the NBA Finals and a seven-game loss to the Lakers last season. They showed signs of doing that in Game 4, particularly on defense, where the quick feet of forward Dennis Rodman and guard Joe Dumars, coupled with aggressive double-teaming, held Michael Jordan to 23 points. Jordan did not score a field goal in—you are reading this correctly—the second period. But the Pistons were still sloppy in their execution and inaccurate with their outside shooting. No, without the sudden switch to normalcy for Jordan, whose running bank shot with three seconds remaining won last Saturday's Game 3, 99-97, the Pistons would have gone home for Game 5 down 3-1.
The tenor of the series was set in Game 1 on May 21, as the Bulls held Detroit's guard rotation of Isiah Thomas, Dumars and Vinnie Johnson to a combined 11 for 45 from the floor in a 94-88 victory. Determined to prove that it was not Jordan's defense that had shut him down, Thomas came back to dominate stretches of Game 2 on May 23 in Detroit and finished with 33 points, most of them against a flu-weakened Jordan. But the Pistons' 100-91 win didn't have the right feel for Detroit. Thomas passed too little (four assists) and shot too much (his 27 shots were seven more than Jordan took). The victory was an uninspiring struggle rather than the kind of decisive momentum-changer that the Pistons needed. "We're a little scattered mentally right now," said center Bill Laimbeer.
Thomas was as befuddled as anyone by the Pistons' listless performance, but he was at least passionate about his confusion. "I don't like the way I had to play tonight," he said firmly after Game 2. "It was like four or five years ago, when I had to take over in order for us to win. I shouldn't have to do that with this team. This team is too good for that." He wrapped it up with this: "If it's Isiah Thomas against Michael Jordan, I'm going to lose that battle every time." Which is your leader in the clubhouse for understatement of the year.
Lurking just below the surface of Game 2 was the Pistons' Bad Boy reputation—and deeds. In the second period Laimbeer was called for an elbowing foul, and when he was whistled for the same violation late in the third quarter, he was automatically ejected. Right before that call, he and Chicago forward Scottie Pippen were involved in a shoving match. Late in the fourth period, Thomas mouthed off at referee Mike Mathis, who hit him with a technical with 2:22 remaining. Finally, Rodman drew a T—the Pistons' fourth of the game—when he head-butted the ball into the seats with 47 seconds left.
Perhaps the Pistons were trying to wake themselves up with all this carrying on, but the psychological payoff was a big zero. In last season's Eastern Conference semifinals, Detroit's cocky, aggressive play put the Bulls off their stride, but Chicago is coping with it better this year. Horace Grant, for one, did not rebound in Game 2 like a man who was intimidated (he had 20, including seven offensive), nor talk like one afterward. "I think it frustrates them when you don't get frustrated," said Grant.
Jordan was not intimidated either. Late in the first period of Game 2, he made a steal in the open court, then seemed to slow down deliberately on his way to the basket so that Laimbeer, possibly his least favorite person on the planet, would try to block the shot. Laimbeer did, and Jordan dunked violently over the 6'11" center, then turned and stared defiantly at him before running upcourt.
Laimbeer denied throwing an elbow in either of the aforementioned instances (replays were inconclusive) and suggested that maybe, just maybe, the call would not have been made had a Motor City Bad Boy not been involved. Laimbeer and several teammates are downright obsessive in their belief that the refs—and, by extension, the NBA hierarchy—are out to get them.
It is true that referees watch Detroit more closely than they do any other NBA team—an honest ref will admit that, albeit not for attribution. But when the Pistons play badly enough to squander a 14-point fourth-period lead and permit a game to come down to a crucial call—which is exactly what happened last Saturday—they have no one but themselves to blame.
"If there was ever a stolen game," said Jordan, "then we stole this one."
For much of Game 3, Jordan slipped through the little cracks and seams in Detroit's defense, time and again beating Dumars, one of the NBA's best one-on-one defenders. It didn't seem like Jordan's air show would be nearly enough, though, as Detroit led 86-72 with 7:37 left. But again, as in Games 1 and 2, the Pistons were not firing in synch, and some of them were not firing at all. Thomas, for one, was curiously passive. He finished Game 3 with five points on eight shots, four of which were blocked. And over that final 7:37, he did not have an assist, either.
Without a leader to seize the team by the scruff of the neck and say, "Get with it!" Detroit let the Bulls creep back into the game. Grant's two free throws with 28 seconds left tied the score at 97. With nine seconds remaining, Laimbeer moved out to the top of the key to set a pick for Thomas on Jordan—"The kind of pick," Laimbeer said later, "that I've set a thousand times before"—and was whistled for an offensive foul by referee Billy Oakes. After the game, Oakes said the violation was called because Laimbeer did not give the defensive player sufficient opportunity to get around the screen, as the rule book demands.
Were the refs looking to make that call against their favorite whipping boys? "Yes, they probably were," said Jordan. "Good always overcomes evil."
Oakes's call was not technically incorrect, but it was still outrageous, coming as it did at that stage of the game and because picks like Laimbeer's as often as not go unwhistled in the NBA. Anyway, Chicago got the ball, and you may now all turn to the dog-eared chapter of your storybooks entitled "Michael's Million Magical Moves." After a timeout, Jordan took Pippen's inbounds pass at the top of the key, ran a few seconds off the clock, drove right to get his defender, Rodman, back on his heels, and then pulled up on the right side about eight feet from the basket. Thomas came over to help Rodman, but it was too late. Jordan went up, angling his body away from Thomas to avoid the offensive foul, and banked in the shot. His 45th and 46th points gave Chicago a 99-97 lead.
The Pistons' strategy for a potential tying or winning basket with three seconds left was not so straightforward as Chicago's. Detroit coach Chuck Daly chose to run a play with a number of options, a primary one being Johnson scissoring off Laimbeer to get open on the left wing. Johnson did, but Dumars didn't see him and instead inbounded to Laimbeer. Laimbeer shoveled it back to Dumars, who put up a hurried 24-footer that bounced off the backboard as the buzzer sounded. In front of the Piston bench, a wide-open Johnson lifted his arms, palms up, in frustration.
Some of that frustration was alleviated in Game 4. Thomas straightened himself out somewhat on Monday with a game-high 27 points. But his quarter-backing was tentative, and he had only six assists. Yes, even if the Pistons get by Chicago, they have a lot of work to do if they are to prevent a repeat of last year's result in the Finals.
Suddenly it was the Bulls' turn to play bully against Thomas (with ball) and the Pistons.