Against the Pistons, the wide-open spaces through which Jordan normally knifes his body often close up. Getting open without the ball, which Jordan normally does by maneuvering Astaire-like through his teammates' picks, takes on the frantic character of a prison break when Detroit is the opponent. The Pistons can't spell "uncontested"—they prefer the technique of knocking Jordan to the floor. "Sometimes I wish I could be my teammates looking at that defense," says Jordan. "It must be nice. But it isn't nice for me."
Much of the recent history of the Eastern Conference has been determined in showdowns between Detroit's D and Jordan's O. Jordan has lifted Chicago past other, more balanced, coulda-beens in the conference, like the New York Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks. He has not, however, been able to subdue the one team that has turned guarding him into an art form.
Okay, it's not always artful. The Pistons' mean streak is a key factor in their success with Jordan. To be blunt, they treat him rudely. Shots that would result in three-point plays against other teams don't even come close when Jordan takes them against Detroit, because he is usually careeemed, not merely fouled. The Pistons have never claimed that they intimidate Jordan, but they have certainly worn him down and chipped away at his seemingly indomitable will to score.
The Pistons aren't just ornery, though. They also have talent and commitment. "Other teams could play the same way but wouldn't get the Pistons' efficiency, because they don't have the people," says Jordan. At least three Pistons are known throughout the league for their skills on D—Dumars and forwards Dennis Rodman and John Salley (page 122)—and Thomas and guard Vinnie Johnson are smart, tough defensive players, too. Moreover, says Detroit assistant coach Brendan Suhr, "Our players believe the defense will work. That's important. If you go into this thing with anything less than a full commitment, it won't work."
Here are several other elements that help the Pistons contain Jordan:
?Not only are the 6'3" Dumars and the Pistons' backup Jordan-stopper, the 6'8" Rodman, outstanding man-to-man defenders, but they present him with contrasting defensive styles. Dumars is basic. He gives Jordan space so that Dumars can always be in position to, above all, stop the drive, but that's not to say he plays Jordan loosely. On the contrary, he carries the message of this 1963 Little Peggy March hit every minute that he's assigned to Jordan: "I will follow him/Follow him wherever he may go. I There isn't an ocean so...." You get the picture. "Joe is strong, physical, sound," says Jordan. "He doesn't do anything spectacular, but he gets it done."
Rodman plays phone booth defense on Jordan, right up on him, inviting a drive to the hoop. While Dumars rarely even makes a swipe at Jordan's shot—he had only six blocks last season, none on Jordan—Rodman is tall enough and quick enough to go after the 6'6" Jordan's shot and get it from time to time. "Rodman's kind of a flopper la player who constantly falls down in an effort to draw a charging call], and he gets some calls," says Jordan. "But he's got very quick feet, and he can get away with playing me that close. Sometimes."
Daly also assigns Johnson, a muscular defensive player along the lines of Dumars, and Thomas, a cagey, steal-oriented defender, to Jordan from time to time, too. "You must have that initial guy, a guy like Dumars, to accept the physical and mental challenge of playing Michael," says Collins. "If you don't, Michael will kill you, regardless of how great your principles are."
?The Pistons have big, agile and quick defenders on the weak side, i.e., on the side away from Jordan when Jordan has the ball. Rodman and Salley are two of the best. As we shall see, they must be able to confront Jordan if he gets by his defender and must be quick enough to switch over and harass the other Chicago shooters when Jordan gives up the ball. The reason that other Bulls, especially Pippen and Craig Hodges, have often missed painfully open shots is that Rodman or Salley was usually flying at them as they released the ball. Last season the weakside defenders played an important role in helping Detroit limit opposing teams to .447 shooting, second best in the league after the Utah Jazz's .434.
?The Pistons have smart defenders off the ball. Laimbeer will never make anyone's all-defensive team, but he's extremely valuable when the Jordan Rules are in effect. His specialty is clogging, which in this case is not a Scottish dance but a technique to keep Jordan from slipping through the cracks in the defense, rather like a football linebacker. Laimbeer, lead-footed but quick-witted, performs this function extremely well (so did Mahorn), and veteran backup center James Edwards isn't bad at it either.