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The mantle of NBA Champions has never fit comfortably around the broad shoulders of the Detroit Pistons, as deserving as they are to wear it. Something about them is just so different from other champions of recent vintage, like the Lakers and the Celtics. The Pistons win with balance, not superstars. They win with defense, not skyhooks, fast breaks and three-point shooting. And they win not by playing classic, film-library basketball, but by playing ugly, by grinding down their opponents, then gleefully vacuuming up the pieces.
"When it looks nice," says Detroit assistant coach Brendan Suhr, "we usually don't win."
Well, Sunday's seventh and deciding game of the Eastern Conference finals didn't always look nice, and—sure enough—the Pistons won, finishing off the Chicago Bulls 93-74 at The Palace of Auburn Hills to gain the championship finals for the third straight year. Detroit was to begin defense of its title against the Portland Trail Blazers (page 22) at home on Tuesday.
"Now I can appreciate what the Lakers and Celtics have done the past 10 years," said Isiah Thomas, who did a little of everything (21 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds) to lead Detroit in Game 7. If the Pistons cannot yet be called a dynasty, they have joined an elite group of teams—Boston, the Lakers (both the Minneapolis and Los Angeles versions), and the New York Knickerbockers (1951 through 1953)—that have made it to three straight NBA Finals.
For Chicago, Game 7 was an old horror story at its most horrific. There was Michael Jordan (31 points, nine assists, eight rebounds) swimming alone against the tide, hoping against hope that one of his teammates would at least wave a life preserver at him. But none of them did. Scottie Pippen, who said he couldn't shake a migraine 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 nobody guarding him, Hodges won the three-point shooting contest at the All-Star Game. Bill Cartwright furnished further proof that, just as youth is sometimes wasted on the young, size is sometimes wasted on the large—he scored only six points and had five rebounds. Add in the severe ankle sprain that made guard John Paxson an observer, and you know why Jordan must have felt as if he were doing a one-man show at Carnegie Hall.
Jordan had performed his moments of special magic during the series: His 47-and 42-point efforts in the Bulls' victories in Game 3 and Game 4. His incomparable 18-point third period that pushed the Bulls to victory in Game 6 in the eardrum-bursting din of Chicago Stadium. His 45-foot shot with 12 seconds left in the first period of Game 5 at The Palace—Jordan mistakenly thought that only two seconds remained, but he put it in anyway. And the lefthanded shovel pass to Grant that he 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 the growing 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 tiptoed around the subject of his supporting cast; his halftime explosion directed largely at his teammates during Game 2 had already attracted far too much attention to suit him. "You've got to accept this loss as a learning experience," said Jordan, who after six NBA seasons is tired of doing exactly that. "I'm not going to point lingers." If he did, he would have 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 and coach Phil Jackson know it must be done.
Now, the most glass-is-half-full Chicago fan would say that the Bulls have made inroads on the Pistons. Two years ago Detroit tossed them out of the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games. Last year it was six in the Eastern finals. This year it went the limit. But there was a distinct feeling in both locker rooms after Sunday's game that the gap between the teams, at least as they are constituted at present, is still an appreciable one. "Sure, we feel like we made some progress this season," said Paxson. "But to say that we have closed on the Pistons, well, we can't say that until we actually beat them."
Some observers have compared the Bulls at this stage with the undeveloped Pistons of several years ago. But the comparison is not apt. The Pistons' young players at that time, Dennis Rodman and John Salley, were destined to develop as defensive rebounding specialists, while Chicago's current hopes for the future, rookies Stacey King and B.J. Armstrong, are primarily offensive players. And that defensive presence, more than any other single factor, defines Detroit.