|MICHAEL JORDAN AND ISIAH THOMAS, 1991|
“We definitely won’t get swept.” So said Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons on Memorial Day, 1991. Game 4 of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals was to be played that day, and the Bulls had won the first three.
The two teams had a good deal of history between them—it was their third straight meeting in the conference finals. The Pistons had defeated the Bulls in six games in 1989 and seven games in 1990, and had gone on to capture the world championship both times.
The Pistons called themselves the Bad Boys, and indeed their style of play often suggested football or rugby rather than basketball. Bill Laimbeer’s specialty was the well-placed elbow to the back of the head; Dennis Rodman’s was taking the legs out from under airborne opponents as they drove to the hoop. “At some level, you were gonna have to contest [the Pistons] physically if you were gonna stay in the game with them,” Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. “If you didn’t want to stay in the game with them, fine. They’d go ahead and beat you. But if you wanted to compete, you’d have to do something physically to play at their level.”
For three games, the Bulls had handled everything the Pistons had thrown at them.
In the early stages of Game 4, though, it appeared that Thomas’s prediction might be right. Fired up by an ear-splitting crowd of 21,454 at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Pistons came out with more intensity than they had shown in the previous games. They led 22-20 late in the first quarter
Then came the turning point. As Bulls guard John Paxson drove to the basket, Laimbeer shouldered him into the stands. Paxson got up, had a few choice words for Laimbeer (his fellow Notre Dame alumnus), and calmly converted the two free throws. “It got me going a little bit,” Paxson said of Laimbeer’s cheap shot. On the Bulls’ next possession, Michael Jordan passed up a chance to dunk over Laimbeer and threw the ball out to Paxson, whose 18-footer was perfect. Paxson scored 10 straight points for the Bulls, and from then on the outcome was never seriously in doubt.
If they were destined to lose, though, the Pistons at least remained true to their identity as the Bad Boys. They heard no inner voices urging them to bow out with dignity. With the Bulls in front 42-34 in the second quarter, Rodman’s body block sent Scottie Pippen skidding into the seats. Several players rushed off the Bulls bench expecting a fight to break out, but Horace Grant reminded his friend not to sink to the Pistons’ level. “You play, you play!” he shouted as Pippen shook the cobwebs from his head.
“We knew what was coming,” said Jordan. “You take the lumps, bruises, and cuts. You take every beating, elbow, and punch and be smart about it. You look left and right and still try to play your game.” The Bulls kept their cool and gradually turned the game into a rout. They led 57-50 at halftime and 87-74 after three quarters. They were ahead by 20 two minutes into the fourth quarter, and that margin remained roughly unchanged thereafter. The Bulls won 115-94.
Jordan was superb, as expected, but Pippen was a revelation. His 23 points and 10 assists proved that he was not only an ideal sidekick for Jordan, but also a full-fledged star in his own right. For the series, he averaged 22 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 5.3 assists to emerge at least partially from Jordan’s very long shadow.
As the clock ticked down toward Detroit’s elimination, Laimbeer, Thomas, Rodman, and Mark Aguirre managed to embarrass themselves more completely than even the Bulls’ dominance had. By slinking off their bench and into the locker room before the game was over, the Pistons’ veteran “leaders” apparently sought to deny the legitimacy of the Bulls’ triumph—as if refusing to acknowledge the result would somehow erase it. They were rightly chastised for failing to congratulate the Bulls, but worse yet was how they so casually abandoned five teammates who happened to be on the court at the time. It was a fittingly shabby way for the Bad Boys to end their reign as champions.
To every question posed by the media after the game, Laimbeer had the same sneering reply: “They won.” Rodman, too, claimed to be unimpressed by the team that had trailed for only 13 of the 192 minutes played in the series. “They still haven’t proved anything,” he said. “They’ve got to win about five or six championships before they’re a great team.”
Even by this unreasonably lofty standard, of course, the Bulls would qualify for greatness before the decade was out. And, unbelievably, Rodman himself would be sporting their colors for three titles.
Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert