The NBA's eastern conference finals between the Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls have been dominated not by the behavior of the celebrated Bad Boys but by the actions of the unlikeliest of angry men, none other than Michael Jordan.
Jordan's brief but extraordinary temper tantrum at halftime of Game 2, followed by three days of broken-field running to avoid the press, might have, in the eyes of some observers, tarnished the Jordan image. But his outburst also jolted his teammates into a competitive frame of mind for Game 3 last Saturday at Chicago Stadium. The Bulls beat Detroit 107-102 to put the brakes on a Piston express train that had been running over the up-to-then dovish Bulls.
"I guess Michael gave us a wake-up call," said Chicago forward Scottie Pippen after scoring 29 points in Saturday's come-from-behind victory, which cut Detroit's series lead to 2-1. Piston center Bill Laimbeer assessed Game 3 a little differently: "It was an aberration."
No, it wasn't. Echoes of Jordan's wake-up call continued to resound throughout the stadium on Monday during Game 4, which Chicago won 108-101 to tie the series. Jordan had 42 points, 19 in the last quarter. But for Game 5 on Wednesday the scene shifted back to the Pistons' Palace of Auburn Hills, where the Bulls had been powerless in Games 1 and 2, losing 86-77 on May 20 and 102-93 on May 22.
If nothing else, Saturday's game proved that Detroit's defense is human, and Jordan's offense, quite often, is not. He finished with 47 points, including 31 in the second half, and for the first time in the series he overcame the suffocating Piston defense that usually keeps him under house arrest with its well-known Jordan Rules. Jordan scored 16 points in the first 8:36 of the fourth period, when the Bulls turned a 77-76 deficit into a 99-90 advantage. What's more, for part of that span he had Defensive Player of the Year Dennis Rodman trying to climb inside his jersey.
"Today we showed the Pistons Jordan Rules instead of Rules Against Jordan," said Bulls coach Phil Jackson afterward.
Jackson reverted to an old ploy when Chicago fell behind by 14 points late in the third period, installing Jordan at point guard, giving him the ball and going to the "whatever Michael wants to do is what we'll do" style of offense. But Jordan got significant contributions down the stretch from a few teammates. (To which Jordan might have said, "At last," were he willing to pour gasoline on the flames of controversy that burned in Chicago last week.) Both Pippen and center Bill Cartwright grabbed key offensive rebounds after errant Jordan shots in the final 1:50, and Pippen's slick pass inside to reserve Ed Nealy with 29.2 seconds left was the key play of the game. Nealy found himself alone under the basket—both Rodman and Mark Aguirre, aware there are no Nealy Rules, were rushing to cover Jordan on the play—and his layup and ensuing free throw gave the Bulls a 104-97 lead and the cushion they needed to hang on. "For us," said Jackson, "today was a day of pride."
And a day of conversation for Jordan. Well, sort of. All he would say about his halftime tirade in Game 2 was that it had not been directed at his teammates' play any more than it had been at his own. All he would say about his refusal to talk to the press was that he wanted to give his teammates "the chance to express themselves, for a change."
Games 1 and 2 at The Palace were anything but Jordan's show. Detroit could afford to have two, even three starters off their offensive games because, as much as any championship unit of the last decade, the Pistons win with offensive balance and defense. Isiah Thomas, who was 5 of 21 from the floor for the two games, and James Edwards (5 of 16) were ineffective, but Joe Dumars scored 27 and 31 points. In Game 3, Thomas carried Detroit with 36 points, including four three-pointers, while Dumars (eight points) and Laimbeer (zero points) all but disappeared.
The kind of defensive attention Jordan would draw in the series became evident early in Game 1, when he crashed hard to the floor while driving to the basket late in the first quarter. Surrounding Jordan when he landed were his defenders, not only Dumars, but also Rodman and Detroit forward John Salley, both of whom had come over to help. A foul should have been called—Rodman, in fact, later admitted that "I kind of helped him down"—but it was by no means a dirty play or even a particularly hard foul. That was not the case in Chicago's Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Philadelphia 76ers, against whom Jordan had room to wrench and knife his body around, thanks to the kinder and gentler Sixer defenders. Jordan often has no place to go—except down—when he takes off against Detroit.
"Gravity works" was Laimbeer's assessment of the play. Although that comment carried a hint of the typical Laimbeer smirk, it was not inaccurate. The modus operandi for today's Pistons is, for the most part, hard but not dirty—the court just seems to shrink when they play their brand of manic defense.
Detroit acknowledges that it has geared its defense to stopping Jordan. At halftime of Game 1, Daly even told Rodman to "forget about Pippen and do your job," which is to concede Pippen the jumper and to converge on Jordan whenever he drives to the basket. Though all too familiar with this state of affairs, none of Jordan's teammates were able to "step forward"—easily the two most overused words of the series, after "Michael" and "Jordan." Result? The Bulls rolled over and died.
Jordan, whose butt and hip stiffened up following the first-quarter collision with Rodman, was held to eight points in the second half, after having scored 26 in the first. Later, Craig Hodges summed up his own contributions and those of his fellow Chicago reserves. "We couldn't play much worse," said Hodges.
Between Games 1 and 2, Jordan's tender injury drew much attention, as did the Jordan Rules. Daly is rather disingenuous on the latter subject, pooh-poohing the importance of the rules whenever anyone wants to discuss them in depth. At the same time, he maintains that no one has completely deciphered them. As he rambled around the press room before Game 2, he held out a cup of steaming tea and said, with mock seriousness, "Ah, what do I see in the tea leaves? Could it be the Jordan Rules?"
Jordan himself had a plan for Game 2, the same one that had been successful against Philadelphia: Recede into the background early in the game (his bruised gluteus muscles and an aching right wrist may have contributed to his decision), get everyone involved in the offense and conserve strength for the stretch drive in the fourth quarter. Jordan got the receding part down pretty well—he tried only eight shots and scored only seven points in the first half—but, again, not one of the "Jordanerrors" or "Jordanaries," as his supporting cast came to be known, was able to step you-know-where.
Detroit stepped off the court with a 53-38 lead at intermission, and Chicago stepped into an explosion of Mount Michael. A transcript of his halftime eruption would have commanded a high price last week, but, to the extent that any of the Bulls was providing elucidation, it went like this: Jordan kicked a few chairs and a watercooler, and, without singling out individuals, he criticized the team's gutless play. The speech did not last long, but it was unprecedented.
And, evidently, effective. With Jordan, Pippen and Horace Grant leading the way, the Bulls went ahead 67-66 late in the third period as Detroit couldn't get anything going offensively. But the comeback effort tired Chicago, and Daly cast a line at his deep bench, hooking Vinnie (the Microwave) Johnson. In the fourth period, Johnson scored seven points, handed out four assists and put his bulky body on Jordan, who had only five points in the final 12 minutes. Jordan finished the game with 20 points and Detroit won going away.
The only thing that really mattered about Jordan's mini-tempest was this: How would it affect Michael and the Jordanaries in Game 3? "I know this," said Adolph Shiver, Jordan's closest confidant, before the game. "Michael got here 20 minutes early. He's ready." And so he was. And so were Pippen and Grant, who pulled down 11 rebounds apiece, and Nealy, who had eight points and four rebounds in 22 minutes.
Still, as matters stood on Monday, the Bulls needed to beat the Pistons at least once at The Palace to win the series. Regardless of whether Jordan stayed as silent as stone or blathered on like an auctioneer, that would not be an easy task against a team as tough and as seasoned as Detroit.