The mantle of NBAChampions has never fit comfortably around the broad shoulders of the DetroitPistons, as deserving as they are to wear it. Something about them is just sodifferent from other champions of recent vintage, like the Lakers and theCeltics. The Pistons win with balance, not superstars. They win with defense,not skyhooks, fast breaks and three-point shooting. And they win not by playingclassic, film-library basketball, but by playing ugly, by grinding down theiropponents, then gleefully vacuuming up the pieces.
This is an article from the June 11, 1990 issue
"When itlooks nice," says Detroit assistant coach Brendan Suhr, "we usuallydon't win."
Well, Sunday'sseventh and deciding game of the Eastern Conference finals didn't always looknice, and—sure enough—the Pistons won, finishing off the Chicago Bulls 93-74 atThe Palace of Auburn Hills to gain the championship finals for the thirdstraight year. Detroit was to begin defense of its title against the PortlandTrail Blazers (page 22) at home on Tuesday.
"Now I canappreciate what the Lakers and Celtics have done the past 10 years," saidIsiah Thomas, who did a little of everything (21 points, 11 assists, eightrebounds) to lead Detroit in Game 7. If the Pistons cannot yet be called adynasty, they have joined an elite group of teams—Boston, the Lakers (both theMinneapolis and Los Angeles versions), and the New York Knickerbockers (1951through 1953)—that have made it to three straight NBA Finals.
For Chicago, Game7 was an old horror story at its most horrific. There was Michael Jordan (31points, nine assists, eight rebounds) swimming alone against the tide, hopingagainst hope that one of his teammates would at least wave a life preserver athim. But none of them did. Scottie Pippen, who said he couldn't shake amigraine that came on during warmups, was 1 of 10 from the floor. Horace Grant,who had played hard and well in the first six games of the series, was 3 of 17.Craig Hodges was 3 of 13, and 2 of 12 from three-point range—funny, with nobodyguarding him, Hodges won the three-point shooting contest at the All-Star Game.Bill Cartwright furnished further proof that, just as youth is sometimes wastedon the young, size is sometimes wasted on the large—he scored only six pointsand had five rebounds. Add in the severe ankle sprain that made guard JohnPaxson an observer, and you know why Jordan must have felt as if he were doinga one-man show at Carnegie Hall.
"I hadtrouble visualizing my teammates," said Pippen, referring to his migraineproblems. Not half as much trouble as Jordan did, Scottie.
Jordan hadperformed his moments of special magic during the series: His 47-and 42-pointefforts in the Bulls' victories in Game 3 and Game 4. His incomparable 18-pointthird period that pushed the Bulls to victory in Game 6 in the eardrum-burstingdin of Chicago Stadium. His 45-foot shot with 12 seconds left in the firstperiod of Game 5 at The Palace—Jordan mistakenly thought that only two secondsremained, but he put it in anyway. And the lefthanded shovel pass to Grant thathe made as he was stumbling to the floor a few minutes later. But in the end,all he had to show for his efforts was a feeling of frustration, and thegrowing realization that he is following a path first blazed by Ernie Banks,the Chicago Cub Hall of Famer who never made it to the World Series.
Jordan tiptoedaround the subject of his supporting cast; his halftime explosion directedlargely at his teammates during Game 2 had already attracted far too muchattention to suit him. "You've got to accept this loss as a learningexperience," said Jordan, who after six NBA seasons is tired of doingexactly that. "I'm not going to point lingers." If he did, he wouldhave to use both hands. As far as next year goes, Jordan would say only:"I'd like to add some more veterans to the team if it can be done."After watching this Game 7 floparama, both general manager Jerry Krause andcoach Phil Jackson know it must be done.
Now, the mostglass-is-half-full Chicago fan would say that the Bulls have made inroads onthe Pistons. Two years ago Detroit tossed them out of the Eastern Conferencesemifinals in five games. Last year it was six in the Eastern finals. This yearit went the limit. But there was a distinct feeling in both locker rooms afterSunday's game that the gap between the teams, at least as they are constitutedat present, is still an appreciable one. "Sure, we feel like we made someprogress this season," said Paxson. "But to say that we have closed onthe Pistons, well, we can't say that until we actually beat them."
Some observershave compared the Bulls at this stage with the undeveloped Pistons of severalyears ago. But the comparison is not apt. The Pistons' young players at thattime, Dennis Rodman and John Salley, were destined to develop as defensiverebounding specialists, while Chicago's current hopes for the future, rookiesStacey King and B.J. Armstrong, are primarily offensive players. And thatdefensive presence, more than any other single factor, defines Detroit.
There werescattered complaints from Jackson throughout the series that the Pistons wereplaying an illegal zone defense much of the time, which is exactly what coachChuck Daly used to say about the Lakers when his Pistons couldn't solve L.A.'strap. But if the Detroit defense is often illegal, the Pistons rotate soexpeditiously that it's difficult to whistle them for it.
The Pistons heldChicago to a .407 shooting percentage in the series; take away Jordan's .467(and even that is no feat for the best player in the world), and the Bulls'team percentage drops to .382. And it was a suffocating trapping defense thatenabled the Pistons to seize control of Game 7 in the second period. With theBulls leading 27-25, Detroit suddenly started scrambling all over the court,forcing Jordan to give up the ball. At the same time, the Pistons rotatedquickly enough to either stop his teammates from shooting or make them altertheir shots. "They're always contesting, always flying at you, and most ofthe time it's one of their leapers, like Salley or Rodman," said Paxson."That plays on your mind." Which means it destroys composure. The Bullshad only two field goals in the final 7:51 of the second period, and Detroitwalked off with a 48-33 halftime lead.
At that point onewondered if Jordan was again enlivening the locker room in some fashion.Evidently he was not. But he most certainly decided at the break that he had totake over the game if the Bulls were to have any chance at all. From the outsetof the third period until reserve Charles Davis made an unassisted layup with1:49 left in the game, Jordan either scored or assisted on every one of theBulls' 14 field goals. During that 22-minute, 11-sccond span, Jordan scored 21points and handed out five assists. Of course, 14 field goals aren't nearlyenough for that period of time, and the closest Chicago could get was 69-59, atthe end of the third period.
The Pistons, bycontrast, spread the wealth, as they always do. Next to playing hellaciousdefense, their most distinctive attribute is their ability to withstandprotracted slumps by any of their scorers. No one player must be on for thePistons to win. On Sunday, for example, Joe Dumars (seven points) and JamesEdwards (six) were off the mark, but Thomas and Mark Aguirre (15 points, 10rebounds) were definitely on. Rodman, playing bravely on a badly sprained leftankle, had 13 points and nine rebounds, while Salley added 14 points to go withhis five blocks. Salley's hot streak continued later, in the Piston lockerroom, when he found a diamond earring that Aguirre thought he had lost. He thencalled Aguirre "tossed-salad head." It didn't make any sense, but itwas funny, as most things are that come out of the Spider's mouth.
Then again, a lotof things about the Pistons don't make sense. Even when they win, they dothings a little differently. In Game 5, at The Palace on May 30, a junkyard-dogof a contest won by the Pistons 97-83, Thomas, frustrated by an offensive-foulcall at the other end, mindlessly tossed Pippen to the floor late in the thirdperiod. That is not exactly recommended behavior by a team captain during theplayoffs, and Daly removed Thomas from the game and did not put him back in.But the Pistons never really missed him, because of the inspired bench play ofVinnie Johnson and Aguirre and because they had the will to shut down Jordan,who scored just 22 points on 7-of-19 shooting. There was also the matter ofDetroit's tepid play in Chicago Stadium throughout the series. During lastFriday's 109-91 loss in Game 6, Detroit even drew a technical foul for havingtoo many men on the court, Rodman having failed to inform Aguirre that he wascoming in for him.
Meanwhile, thesharpshooting of Hodges in Game 6 (19 points, 4 of 4 on three-pointers) seemedto give the Bulls hope for Game 7. If someone, anyone, could hit a few jumpshots to loosen up the Piston defense, it would be Chicago going to its firstNBA Finals and the Pistons going home. "Tonight I felt like I was shootinginto Lake Michigan," said Hodges after Game 6.
But by lateSunday afternoon he felt like he was drowning in Lake Huron. If the TrailBlazers want to avoid that feeling, they must come up with a way of beating amost unusual team. A team whose center, Bill Laimbeer, stays outside and shootsjump shots. A team that uses a nonscorer, Rodman, at small forward, a scorer'sposition. A team whose post-up player is its power forward, Edwards, who reallydoesn't have a power game at all, preferring instead to shoot fadeaway jumpshots.
And the Blazerswill find, as Chicago did, that playing Detroit is like darting through aminefield. Which mines are active? Which are misfiring? No one knows for sure,including the Pistons. Take Thomas. He was pitiful in Games 1, 2 and 5,shooting 8 of 31 from the floor, yet he performed masterfully in Sunday'sclincher. Dumars seemed to sense when he needed to pick up for his backcourtmate, playing his best when Thomas was at his worst, and vice versa. Laimbeerlaid nothing but brick in Games 3 and 4, going 1 for 13 from the field, thenwent 7 of 13 to help the Pistons in Game 5. Daly begins each game, as he says,"looking for a horse to ride, and most of the time I don't have any moreidea who that will be than anyone else."
Offensively theBlazers will have their problems too. If the Pistons could shut down Jordan forlong stretches, as they did in Games 1, 2 and 5, it's hard to imagine that theywon't be able to stop Portland's Jordan, Clyde Drexler, even if they don't havetime to institute a set of Drexler Rules. Thomas will certainly be tested onboth ends of the court by Portland point guard Terry Porter more than he was byHodges, Paxson and Armstrong, the trio that took turns going up against him inthe Chicago series. But it's exactly the kind of challenge to which the Pistoncaptain will respond. And though Jerome Kersey's jump-shooting and all-aroundoffensive abilities have been one of the surprises of the playoffs, Kersey willnow have to get his shot off with Rodman, the quick-footed, fist-waving Worm,all over him. Jerome, the vacation is over.
The Blazers doappear to match up with Detroit better than Chicago did. They have toughnessand maturity, represented by Buck Williams and Porter, and talent, representedby Drexler, Kersey and rookie Cliff Robinson, that Chicago does not possess,Jordan excluded. Logic says they could topple Detroit and prevent a repeat.
"But,"reminds Thomas, "we're a very illogical team." And a very good one,too. Looks like the Pistons in six.