You know you're on a roll when you're sitting in the visitors' locker room an hour before meeting the big, bad Detroit Pistons in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals—a game that, as Chicago Bulls coach Doug Collins says, "no one in the world expects you to win"—and you calmly stare down a few reporters and say, "We're going to win. I bet you. The first game is the easiest to get, because they don't know what to expect." Then the game follows your script to a T. That was the case with Michael Jordan on Sunday afternoon.
Right now Jordan is a supremely, almost serenely, confident young athlete, the master of his universe. Ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no valley low enough, ain't no river wide enough to stop Michael Jeffrey Jordan, and he's pulling the Bulls along with him. "We win the first game, we win the series," he said in that pregame meeting with the press. Chicago's 94-88 upset of Detroit meant that the Bulls had begun their third straight series of the postseason with a victory on the road. It is time, one supposes, to seriously consider that—somehow, someway—Chicago, the East's sixth seed, just might have what it takes to reach the NBA Finals.
The Bulls' first-round defeat of the Cleveland Cavaliers was surprising but well within explainable boundaries. The Cavs were formidable, but they also were young, battered and ill-equipped to handle Jordan, whose buzzer-beating jumper in Game 5 closed out that series on May 7. It will be nice to have Jordan around for a while longer, we thought then, but surely this is the end of the line for the Bulls.
It wasn't. The feisty New York Knicks fell next, in six games. The finale was a blood-boiling 113-111 Bulls win in Chicago last Friday night.
Whatever was going on, surely the well-rested and battle-tested Pistons, who had won all six of their regular-season meetings with Chicago, would put an end to all the theatrics in Game 1 of the conference finals. They didn't. The Bulls rushed out to a 14-4 lead, playing as if they were the haughty defending Eastern champions and the Pistons the visiting peons. By midway through the second quarter, Chicago stretched its lead to 48-24. The Bulls struggled through much of the second half, but they toughened down the stretch to close out the victory and confirm what was in Jordan's crystal ball.
"It was a weird feeling when the buzzer went off and we'd lost," said Detroit supersub Dennis Rodman. For both you and Collins, Dennis. "Yes, I'm real surprised, and you are too," Collins told reporters after the game. "So we're surprised together. We can all have a surprise party."
And Jordan can bake the cake. He might as well, because he has done everything else. Case in point: The Bulls led the Knicks 111-107, with only six seconds remaining in Friday's game, when Chicago's Craig Hodges inexplicably fouled Trent Tucker as Tucker was attempting a three-pointer. Tucker made both the shot and the ensuing free throw for a four-point play to tie the game. It was the kind of bonehead play that makes coaches consider selling shower heads for a living, and for a moment Collins looked as if he had been kicked in the stomach. Then he remembered: Wait a minute, we still have Michael! And there are six seconds left!
Did anyone in Chicago Stadium, the Knicks included, not think that Jordan would win the series—either with a jump shot, as he had against Cleveland, or at the free throw line? He did the latter, making both foul shots for his 39th and 40th points of the game. "That's why Michael's the best player ever to put on a uniform," said New York coach Rick Pitino after the game.
Jordan's pregame prediction notwithstanding, he was not as dramatic on Sunday, but he didn't have to be. What he had to do was to get the Bulls off quickly, so that the Pistons would not sense tired Chicago blood and go for an early kill. And guess what? He scored 14 points in the first quarter. He finished with 32, despite being smothered for much of the fourth quarter by Rodman. Equally important, Jordan justified Collins's defensive strategy by containing Detroit point guard Isiah Thomas, who shot a nightmarish 3 for 18. Thomas didn't blame his recent hand and shoulder injuries, but he said instead, "I know I didn't have a good feel for the ball."
Chicago's backup center, Dave Corzine, of all people, was also a major factor early, scoring eight unanswered points, and second-year swingman Scottie Pippen was a major factor late, grabbing five fourth-period rebounds to single-handedly stem a flood of Piston put-backs. Detroit scored 17 extra-chance points in the last 15 minutes. As the playoffs go on, Chicago's supporting cast seems more comfortable, more aware of how to fit itself into Jordan's universe.
Chicago center Bill Cartwright, who finished with 10 points and four rebounds, had a relatively quiet game, but he was a force in the Knick series and must be one again if the Bulls are to pull off another stunner. For most of the season, Cartwright, who turns 32 on July 30, was the outsider among his younger teammates. Jordan, in particular, made no secret of the fact that he did not approve of the off-season trade that sent forward Charles Oakley to the Knicks for Cartwright, and Jordan sometimes lampooned the pivotman's stilted moves and propensity for nailing teammates with his flying elbows.
Cartwright is a quiet but proud man, and he eventually let Jordan know that his comments were not appreciated. They discussed the matter in private a month ago, and since then things have been better between them. The Bulls have been searching for the right chemistry since Jordan was a rookie in 1984. Now, at last, they may have it.
"Does this win the series?" Collins asked rhetorically on Sunday. "No. Does it give us life? Yes. We feel good about ourselves."
With Jordan on such a roll, who could blame them?