For much of Game 3, Jordan slipped through the little cracks and seams in Detroit's defense, time and again beating Dumars, one of the NBA's best one-on-one defenders. It didn't seem like Jordan's air show would be nearly enough, though, as Detroit led 86-72 with 7:37 left. But again, as in Games 1 and 2, the Pistons were not firing in synch, and some of them were not firing at all. Thomas, for one, was curiously passive. He finished Game 3 with five points on eight shots, four of which were blocked. And over that final 7:37, he did not have an assist, either.
Without a leader to seize the team by the scruff of the neck and say, "Get with it!" Detroit let the Bulls creep back into the game. Grant's two free throws with 28 seconds left tied the score at 97. With nine seconds remaining, Laimbeer moved out to the top of the key to set a pick for Thomas on Jordan—"The kind of pick," Laimbeer said later, "that I've set a thousand times before"—and was whistled for an offensive foul by referee Billy Oakes. After the game, Oakes said the violation was called because Laimbeer did not give the defensive player sufficient opportunity to get around the screen, as the rule book demands.
Were the refs looking to make that call against their favorite whipping boys? "Yes, they probably were," said Jordan. "Good always overcomes evil."
Oakes's call was not technically incorrect, but it was still outrageous, coming as it did at that stage of the game and because picks like Laimbeer's as often as not go unwhistled in the NBA. Anyway, Chicago got the ball, and you may now all turn to the dog-eared chapter of your storybooks entitled "Michael's Million Magical Moves." After a timeout, Jordan took Pippen's inbounds pass at the top of the key, ran a few seconds off the clock, drove right to get his defender, Rodman, back on his heels, and then pulled up on the right side about eight feet from the basket. Thomas came over to help Rodman, but it was too late. Jordan went up, angling his body away from Thomas to avoid the offensive foul, and banked in the shot. His 45th and 46th points gave Chicago a 99-97 lead.
The Pistons' strategy for a potential tying or winning basket with three seconds left was not so straightforward as Chicago's. Detroit coach Chuck Daly chose to run a play with a number of options, a primary one being Johnson scissoring off Laimbeer to get open on the left wing. Johnson did, but Dumars didn't see him and instead inbounded to Laimbeer. Laimbeer shoveled it back to Dumars, who put up a hurried 24-footer that bounced off the backboard as the buzzer sounded. In front of the Piston bench, a wide-open Johnson lifted his arms, palms up, in frustration.
Some of that frustration was alleviated in Game 4. Thomas straightened himself out somewhat on Monday with a game-high 27 points. But his quarter-backing was tentative, and he had only six assists. Yes, even if the Pistons get by Chicago, they have a lot of work to do if they are to prevent a repeat of last year's result in the Finals.