My, what a thoroughly enjoyable time the Chicago Bulls had in their Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons. By the time the Bulls wrapped up a four-game sweep with a 115-94 victory on Monday afternoon at The Palace of Auburn Hills, they had become the haughty hunters, forcing the Pistons into the unfamiliar, and singularly unappetizing, role of the humble hunted. Three straight years of postseason frustration were all but obliterated by Chicago's sweep, which almost no one had considered even a remote possibility.
Talk about reversals of fortune. The Bulls could only chuckle as the Pistons complained about prejudicial treatment by the referees. Detroit forward John Salley said the Bulls were guilty of "subliminal seduction" of the officials, while teammate Mark Aguirre reached for a barnyard metaphor, suggesting that the refs were watching the wolf "while the weasel got the eggs." Whew!
The Detroit players seemed bewildered by their failure to crack the energetic Bulls defense. "We're off-balance," said guard Isiah Thomas. O.K. "They're taking away things that we're used to having work for us," said center Bill Laimbeer. Right. "There is something missing, but I don't know what it is," said forward Dennis Rodman. A lot of head-scratching in those statements.
And wasn't it a strange turnaround for the much-maligned Chicago reserves, usually so ineffectual against the Pistons, not only to make solid on-the-court contributions but also talk a little trash? Jeez, even center Will Perdue—Will Perdue!—was getting on Detroit's nerves, not to mention the offensive boards.
June 2, 1991
The Pistons didn't so much drop the ball as the Bulls knocked it out of their hands and ran with it. As ready as the aging Pistons might have been to surrender Eastern supremacy, Chicago was equally ready to seize it. Some likened the situation to a once-timid schoolboy (Chicago) who finally summoned up his nerve to stand up to the bully (Detroit); once he did it, it got easier and easier. But that is too simplistic. The bully tag sells Detroit short as a basketball team. To handle the Pistons, a team has to outprepare, out-think, outhustle and outplay them. And through most of the series Chicago did exactly that. The Pistons were so shaken after their 113-107 loss in Game 3 last Saturday at The Palace that a couple of prominent Detroit players, Laimbeer and guard Vinnie Johnson, used a backdoor maneuver to skip out on postgame interviews. The Pistons had tried no such inventive strategy during the game, however, and only the individual brilliance of Thomas (29 points) and Johnson (25 points) kept it from being a rout.
"We're not used to this," said a dejected Joe Dumars after he scored just 11 points in 47 minutes in Game 3, "and it's a terrible feeling."
The Bulls came into the series with two game plans, one mental, one strategic. Ultimately, the latter plan, which involved using defensive principles that turned the Piston offense from patient to panicked, was the more significant. Still, the former was a little more interesting.
Chicago decided to be aggressive in dealing with the Pistons' intimidation. Throw some verbal garbage back at them once in a while, a little-known specialty of Michael Jordan's. Return the bumps and pushes. Don't back down. Yet at the same time, don't get drawn into an all-out physical confrontation, because that will favor Detroit. The Pistons thought the Bulls, particularly Jordan and coach Phil Jackson, went out of their way in their public comments to plant in the officials' minds the idea that Detroit is a dirty team, thus causing some quick whistles. Chicago insisted it was only speaking the truth, and—let's face it—calling the Pistons dirty is not exactly a novel charge. At any rate, the Bulls were the benefactors of flagrant foul calls (each resulted in two free throws and possession) on three occasions during their 105-97 victory in Game 2 on May 21 at Chicago Stadium; the first two calls were plainly ridiculous.
Whether it was the referees, or Chicago's maturity, or a combination of the two, the extracurricular activity that the Pistons did engage in during the series had a curiously empty aspect to it. There, for example, was Rodman, in the fourth period of Game 2, giving Perdue one, two, three shots in the back before the mild-mannered Perdue finally retaliated, resulting in a double-technical foul. But what did the shoving really accomplish except to demean Rodman, the NBA's finest one-on-one defensive player? In the first period of Game 3, Aguirre, looking for a foul call that never came, punched the ball out of the grasp of the Bulls' Horace Grant in a dead-ball situation. Perhaps next time Mark should try hiding behind the scorer's table and lobbing spit-balls. Having gotten away with that, Aguirre shoved Grant in the open floor in full view of the officials less than a minute later. This time he got the T. Later, when the Bulls were 50 seconds from victory, Rodman slammed the ball into Jordan's stomach, drawing yet another technical.
"When we keep our composure," said Grant, "I think it frustrates them."
The Pistons just couldn't win the psychological battle, no matter how hard they tried. Between Games 2 and 3, Salley went after Jordan with some pointed criticism, trying to puncture the Jordan image and, at the same time, restore some Piston pugnacity.
"Everybody's into this high-tech thing now," said Salley. "High-tech sneakers, high-tech players...that's Michael, and for some reason he thinks just because he's the greatest player in the world, we're supposed to come to the game and just watch him. Hey, we're not here to watch him. We're here to win a championship. We play an intense style and it's going to be even more intense on Saturday. Maybe one of the most intense games you've ever seen."
It was not, certainly not from the Pistons' perspective. It was the Bulls who came out aggressively and built a 24-8 lead. One play in particular epitomized their early intensity. The play spoke to the strategic aspect of Chicago's game plan, too. Five minutes into the game, Bulls forward Scottie Pippen and guard John Paxson trapped Thomas in the backcourt, forcing him to give the ball up to forward James Edwards in the open floor, where Edwards is least comfortable. Jordan ran at Edwards from the side, nearly jumped completely over him—must have been some kind of high-tech move—and swatted the ball away, a move that led to a transition jumper by Paxson.
That was Chicago's defense at its best—creating opportunities for the offense. The defensive principles that the Bulls brought into the Detroit series were not nearly as structured as the famed "Jordan Rules" that Detroit had used to discombobulate Jordan in past years, but they were well executed and effective. Of primary importance was Grant's uncanny ability to "recover," i.e. to supply pressure at the point of the ball and also get back to defense an open man. The open-court defensive abilities of Jordan and Pippen—"our snapping, scratching and snarling Dobermans," as assistant coach Johnny Bach aptly calls them—were another factor. And then there were Paxson and center Bill Cartwright, playing what, in the Bulls' scheme, passes for conventional, non-gambling defense.
In general, the Bulls' goal was to increase the tempo of the game and get the Pistons scrambling on offense, rather than allow Detroit to set up in a halfcourt situation. Edwards, for example, is almost helpless as an offensive player unless he gets the ball in the low post where he can devastate his opponent with a fallaway jumper. The Bulls didn't let him do that. They ran Pippen, Jordan or Grant at the Piston point guards—Bach likened it to "getting to the quarterback"—and took away the normal halfcourt passing angles that enabled the Pistons to get the ball inside. Consequently, Edwards played just 45 minutes in the first three games and scored only 11 points.
More specifically, the Bulls wanted to squelch the Pistons' patented pick-and-roll, which usually enables either the Detroit guards to penetrate or Laimbeer, the league's best big-man perimeter shooter, to fade off the pick and spot up for a jumper. Chicago was determined to stop both moves, no matter what other offensive options opened up as a result. Maybe the situation called for a double-team on the guards and a third player to rotate up on Laimbeer. Maybe it called for a quick defender, like Grant, to double-team the guard for a moment, then recover quickly and dash back to Laimbeer. Maybe it called for strange matchups, like, say, having Grant and Cartwright double-team the guard while Paxson checked Laimbeer, who is almost a foot taller. The Bulls didn't care because, in that case, the guards couldn't deliver the ball to Laimbeer in the spot where he is most comfortable. The constant and aggressive double-teaming and scramble-rotating threw Detroit off-balance. "We wanted to play this well defensively," said Paxson, "but I don't think anyone thought we would." And when the Pistons did make an adjustment that beat the Chicago defense, such as going with the three-guard lineup that gave them a marked edge in quickness in Game 3, they had to pull other personnel off the floor (sometimes Rodman, sometimes Laimbeer, quite often Edwards) and sacrifice some of the things that had made them champions—size, defensive presence, offensive rebounding.
"There was nothing magical about our defense," said Jordan, who scored 33 points, 14 of them in the final period, to lead the Bulls in Game 3. "It's just that we had never made the physical and mental commitment to do those things before. We made them crumble, made them scramble, made them come apart. That's always what they've done to us in the past."
Now it remains to be seen if the Bulls can impose their defensive will on the Western winner, be it the Los Angeles Lakers or the Portland Trail Blazers. In either case, Chicago will come into the NBA Finals with plenty of momentum and confidence, having lost only one game (to the Philadelphia 76ers) in three Eastern series. The Bulls are a lot better than most observers had thought—including one Michael Jeffrey Jordan, whose constant complaint during this and recent seasons was that Chicago general manager Jerry Krause had not supplied him with enough help.
"I can reconsider my words," said Jordan, when asked after Game 3 about his criticism of Krause. "I can even eat them."