Even as their physical style left various NBA teams in pieces this season, the Detroit Pistons could never quite put together their own. In failing to fulfill their regular-season mission of beating out the Boston Celtics for the Eastern Conference's best record, the Pistons were often a contentious bunch, forever in search of the recipe to blend their abundant supply of talent and ego successfully. "Let's just say we're more mercurial than most teams," says Detroit assistant coach Dick Versace.
But under optimum conditions for the Pistons last weekend at Chicago Stadium—i.e., they were being booed and jeered and otherwise generally despised by 18,676 screaming fans—Detroit responded by frustrating the Chicago Bulls and their vociferous backers. The Pistons spread around the offensive goodies, wrapped a human net around Michael Jordan, turned Jordan's supporting cast into an ineffectual band of bit players and held the Bulls to fewer than 80 points in each of two runaway victories, 101-79 and 96-77. The back-to-back wins gave the Pistons a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern semifinal, which would return to Pontiac, Mich., for Game 5 on Wednesday night.
The Pistons came into Chicago on the defensive, if, indeed, that mind-set can be used when referring to such a cocky and aggressive bunch. When Chicago tied the series 1-1 with a 105-95 victory at the Silverdome, Detroit lost the home-court advantage. "I just can't understand it," coach Chuck Daly lamented after that game. But the Pistons' subsequent performances in Chicago were easy to comprehend: They shut off the Bulls and even, at times, Jordan, who had to claw and scratch and call on every one of his preternatural talents to score 24 and 23 points. "When we're cornered, we play our best basketball," said Daly after Saturday's victory.
If Daly's comment suggests an animal aspect of the Pistons, he'll get no argument about that from the rest of the NBA. But Detroit's physical game is effective only if it also works on the minds of its opponents—there's a method to the Pistons' badness—and that's exactly what happened in the early moments of Game 3 on Saturday when the direction of the weekend was established.
May 22, 1988
Detroit center Bill Laimbeer was whistled for an offensive foul when he set a hard, Piston-style pick on Jordan. But Jordan thought that Laimbeer continued with the pick after the whistle, so he gave Laimbeer an elbow in the gut as they headed upcourt. Laimbeer shoved Jordan and, lo and behold, Jordan came back swinging, landing two blows before he was separated from Laimbeer. Jordan, who was charged with a technical, later said that it was the first time he ever threw a punch on a basketball court.
Less than a minute later Detroit power forward Rick Mahorn, a fellow who would win an NBA popularity contest only if he were running against Laimbeer, took a swing at Chicago forward Charles Oakley as they wrestled for a rebound. Mahorn drew the T this time. The early fireworks, minor though they were by Piston standards, threw the Bulls off their game. "It got me out of sync," is the way Jordan put it. Said Chicago coach Doug Collins, "The distractions put us in an early frenzy."
Detroit may have gained the psychological edge even before the Laimbeer-Jordan fandango. During the pre-game warmups, Piston point guard Isiah Thomas was shooting around and talking to the Cleveland Cavaliers' Ron Harper (who was at the game as a spectator) when Chicago point guard Rory Sparrow happened by. Harper told Sparrow that the Pistons were going to send the Bulls on summer vacation. No, said Sparrow, it's Detroit that should be packing its bags.
"You know why you won't win?" said Sparrow to Thomas. "Because you got too many egos on that team."
The comment infuriated Thomas. "I ran right back and told my teammates," he said after the game. "It fired us up."
If egotism (Thomas's and Adrian Dantley's, in particular) got the Pistons into a funk at times this season, it was certainly no issue in the two games in Chicago. The tentative and inexperienced Bulls were an easy mark for Detroit, which stood united, strong and deep. The ball rarely stopped moving when it was in the Pistons' hands, as it did all too frequently when Chicago was on the offensive end.
The reason for the Bulls' stagnation was Detroit's active, all-hands-on-deck defense, keyed to double-and triple-teaming Jordan.
"It's difficult to beat a defense by myself," said Jordan. "You can't expect me to go one against five."
Especially against a formidable foe like Detroit.