The NBA's eastern conference finals between the Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls have been dominated not by the behavior of the celebrated Bad Boys but by the actions of the unlikeliest of angry men, none other than Michael Jordan.
Jordan's brief but extraordinary temper tantrum at halftime of Game 2, followed by three days of broken-field running to avoid the press, might have, in the eyes of some observers, tarnished the Jordan image. But his outburst also jolted his teammates into a competitive frame of mind for Game 3 last Saturday at Chicago Stadium. The Bulls beat Detroit 107-102 to put the brakes on a Piston express train that had been running over the up-to-then dovish Bulls.
"I guess Michael gave us a wake-up call," said Chicago forward Scottie Pippen after scoring 29 points in Saturday's come-from-behind victory, which cut Detroit's series lead to 2-1. Piston center Bill Laimbeer assessed Game 3 a little differently: "It was an aberration."
No, it wasn't. Echoes of Jordan's wake-up call continued to resound throughout the stadium on Monday during Game 4, which Chicago won 108-101 to tie the series. Jordan had 42 points, 19 in the last quarter. But for Game 5 on Wednesday the scene shifted back to the Pistons' Palace of Auburn Hills, where the Bulls had been powerless in Games 1 and 2, losing 86-77 on May 20 and 102-93 on May 22.
If nothing else, Saturday's game proved that Detroit's defense is human, and Jordan's offense, quite often, is not. He finished with 47 points, including 31 in the second half, and for the first time in the series he overcame the suffocating Piston defense that usually keeps him under house arrest with its well-known Jordan Rules. Jordan scored 16 points in the first 8:36 of the fourth period, when the Bulls turned a 77-76 deficit into a 99-90 advantage. What's more, for part of that span he had Defensive Player of the Year Dennis Rodman trying to climb inside his jersey.
"Today we showed the Pistons Jordan Rules instead of Rules Against Jordan," said Bulls coach Phil Jackson afterward.
Jackson reverted to an old ploy when Chicago fell behind by 14 points late in the third period, installing Jordan at point guard, giving him the ball and going to the "whatever Michael wants to do is what we'll do" style of offense. But Jordan got significant contributions down the stretch from a few teammates. (To which Jordan might have said, "At last," were he willing to pour gasoline on the flames of controversy that burned in Chicago last week.) Both Pippen and center Bill Cartwright grabbed key offensive rebounds after errant Jordan shots in the final 1:50, and Pippen's slick pass inside to reserve Ed Nealy with 29.2 seconds left was the key play of the game. Nealy found himself alone under the basket—both Rodman and Mark Aguirre, aware there are no Nealy Rules, were rushing to cover Jordan on the play—and his layup and ensuing free throw gave the Bulls a 104-97 lead and the cushion they needed to hang on. "For us," said Jackson, "today was a day of pride."
And a day of conversation for Jordan. Well, sort of. All he would say about his halftime tirade in Game 2 was that it had not been directed at his teammates' play any more than it had been at his own. All he would say about his refusal to talk to the press was that he wanted to give his teammates "the chance to express themselves, for a change."
Games 1 and 2 at The Palace were anything but Jordan's show. Detroit could afford to have two, even three starters off their offensive games because, as much as any championship unit of the last decade, the Pistons win with offensive balance and defense. Isiah Thomas, who was 5 of 21 from the floor for the two games, and James Edwards (5 of 16) were ineffective, but Joe Dumars scored 27 and 31 points. In Game 3, Thomas carried Detroit with 36 points, including four three-pointers, while Dumars (eight points) and Laimbeer (zero points) all but disappeared.
The kind of defensive attention Jordan would draw in the series became evident early in Game 1, when he crashed hard to the floor while driving to the basket late in the first quarter. Surrounding Jordan when he landed were his defenders, not only Dumars, but also Rodman and Detroit forward John Salley, both of whom had come over to help. A foul should have been called—Rodman, in fact, later admitted that "I kind of helped him down"—but it was by no means a dirty play or even a particularly hard foul. That was not the case in Chicago's Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Philadelphia 76ers, against whom Jordan had room to wrench and knife his body around, thanks to the kinder and gentler Sixer defenders. Jordan often has no place to go—except down—when he takes off against Detroit.