My, what a thoroughly enjoyable time the Chicago Bulls had in their Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons. By the time the Bulls wrapped up a four-game sweep with a 115-94 victory on Monday afternoon at The Palace of Auburn Hills, they had become the haughty hunters, forcing the Pistons into the unfamiliar, and singularly unappetizing, role of the humble hunted. Three straight years of postseason frustration were all but obliterated by Chicago's sweep, which almost no one had considered even a remote possibility.
Talk about reversals of fortune. The Bulls could only chuckle as the Pistons complained about prejudicial treatment by the referees. Detroit forward John Salley said the Bulls were guilty of "subliminal seduction" of the officials, while teammate Mark Aguirre reached for a barnyard metaphor, suggesting that the refs were watching the wolf "while the weasel got the eggs." Whew!
The Detroit players seemed bewildered by their failure to crack the energetic Bulls defense. "We're off-balance," said guard Isiah Thomas. O.K. "They're taking away things that we're used to having work for us," said center Bill Laimbeer. Right. "There is something missing, but I don't know what it is," said forward Dennis Rodman. A lot of head-scratching in those statements.
And wasn't it a strange turnaround for the much-maligned Chicago reserves, usually so ineffectual against the Pistons, not only to make solid on-the-court contributions but also talk a little trash? Jeez, even center Will Perdue—Will Perdue!—was getting on Detroit's nerves, not to mention the offensive boards.
The Pistons didn't so much drop the ball as the Bulls knocked it out of their hands and ran with it. As ready as the aging Pistons might have been to surrender Eastern supremacy, Chicago was equally ready to seize it. Some likened the situation to a once-timid schoolboy (Chicago) who finally summoned up his nerve to stand up to the bully (Detroit); once he did it, it got easier and easier. But that is too simplistic. The bully tag sells Detroit short as a basketball team. To handle the Pistons, a team has to outprepare, out-think, outhustle and outplay them. And through most of the series Chicago did exactly that. The Pistons were so shaken after their 113-107 loss in Game 3 last Saturday at The Palace that a couple of prominent Detroit players, Laimbeer and guard Vinnie Johnson, used a backdoor maneuver to skip out on postgame interviews. The Pistons had tried no such inventive strategy during the game, however, and only the individual brilliance of Thomas (29 points) and Johnson (25 points) kept it from being a rout.
"We're not used to this," said a dejected Joe Dumars after he scored just 11 points in 47 minutes in Game 3, "and it's a terrible feeling."
The Bulls came into the series with two game plans, one mental, one strategic. Ultimately, the latter plan, which involved using defensive principles that turned the Piston offense from patient to panicked, was the more significant. Still, the former was a little more interesting.
Chicago decided to be aggressive in dealing with the Pistons' intimidation. Throw some verbal garbage back at them once in a while, a little-known specialty of Michael Jordan's. Return the bumps and pushes. Don't back down. Yet at the same time, don't get drawn into an all-out physical confrontation, because that will favor Detroit. The Pistons thought the Bulls, particularly Jordan and coach Phil Jackson, went out of their way in their public comments to plant in the officials' minds the idea that Detroit is a dirty team, thus causing some quick whistles. Chicago insisted it was only speaking the truth, and—let's face it—calling the Pistons dirty is not exactly a novel charge. At any rate, the Bulls were the benefactors of flagrant foul calls (each resulted in two free throws and possession) on three occasions during their 105-97 victory in Game 2 on May 21 at Chicago Stadium; the first two calls were plainly ridiculous.
Whether it was the referees, or Chicago's maturity, or a combination of the two, the extracurricular activity that the Pistons did engage in during the series had a curiously empty aspect to it. There, for example, was Rodman, in the fourth period of Game 2, giving Perdue one, two, three shots in the back before the mild-mannered Perdue finally retaliated, resulting in a double-technical foul. But what did the shoving really accomplish except to demean Rodman, the NBA's finest one-on-one defensive player? In the first period of Game 3, Aguirre, looking for a foul call that never came, punched the ball out of the grasp of the Bulls' Horace Grant in a dead-ball situation. Perhaps next time Mark should try hiding behind the scorer's table and lobbing spit-balls. Having gotten away with that, Aguirre shoved Grant in the open floor in full view of the officials less than a minute later. This time he got the T. Later, when the Bulls were 50 seconds from victory, Rodman slammed the ball into Jordan's stomach, drawing yet another technical.
"When we keep our composure," said Grant, "I think it frustrates them."