'The Last Dance' Chronicles: The fascinating Chicago-Detroit rivalry
Chicago's Michael Jordan (left) and Isiah Thomas of Detroit were bitter rivals during their time.
Photo courtesy of NBA
'The Last Dance' Chronicles: The fascinating Chicago-Detroit rivalry
Rick Olivares (Philstar.com) - April 30, 2020 - 1:25pm

MANILA, Philippines – Before the Chicago Bulls could become champions, they had to endure three consecutive playoffs where they got knocked out by the Detroit Pistons.

The Bulls, like the Philadelphia 76ers before them who needed to get past the Boston Celtics, are prime examples of getting over the hump.

In our previous article, we explained that some of the roots of the rivalry and Michael Jordan’s dislike of Detroit’s Isiah Thomas had to do with the alleged Freeze-Out of the 1985 All-Star Game, and that Jordan has become the hero in the former’s hometown of the Windy City. 

It didn’t help that two of MJ’s highest scoring games came at the expense of the Pistons — one Detroit desperately wanted to stop.

In the second round of the 1988 Eastern Conference playoffs, the Bulls lost 1-4 as Detroit clobbered them by double digits. Five Pistons averaged double figures: Thomas, Adrian Dantley, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson. The Bulls only had three in Jordan, Sam Vincent, and Horace Grant. Scottie Pippen and Charles Oakley were on the outside looking in with 9.4 points in the five-game series.

The Pistons shot better, played more as a team, and attempted and made more free throws than the Bulls.

The two squads collided the following season in the Eastern Conference finals, with Detroit winning in six.

The Bulls closed the gap and never lost by double figures. And while it doesn’t seem much, only four Pistons averaged 10-points or more in scoring. Jordan, Craig Hodges, and newly-acquired Bill Cartwright scored in double figures while Pippen and Grant were on the outside looking in. And once more, the Pistons shot more free throws and dominated on the offensive end.

During the 1990 Eastern Finals that also included the infamous migraine game of Pippen and where the “Jordan Rules” were in full effect, Chicago fell in seven games. The gap was closing.

We saw the gap close somewhat in 1989, but this series was also characterized by blowouts by either team. Dumars, Thomas and Mark Aguirre led Detroit while the Bulls’ top three of Jordan, Pippen and Grant shone.

In guarding Michael Jordan, the Pistons employed the following:

  1. Let him score all the points if need be early in the game and not to let his teammates get in the game. This also called for the Pistons to keep the score close. The last thing they needed was the other Bulls scoring meaningful and clutch baskets. If Jordan took a bunch of shots in the first three quarters, come the final quarter, the other Bulls would be gun shy especially if they needed a crucial basket.
  2. Force Jordan to his left and keep him away as much as possible from going baseline. This is fascinating. The theory by the Pistons was that Jordan preferred shooting from the right side. This was true early in Jordan’s career, but as the years went by, as then Atlanta Hawks forward Steve Smith said, “He had no patterns and wanted to prove to every coach and player that he could score from ANYWHERE.”
  3. During the second wave of the Bulls’ three-peat, opponents would hope that one of Chicago’s Big Three would have an off night so MJ would fill up the slack because that left him tired.
  4. The moment Jordan entered the paint — they would hammer him. Jordan was willing to take the punishment, but it took also a lot out of him. In the paint, that is where they ran the taller players at him.
  5. In the first three quarters, Dumars guarded Jordan one-on-one. Come the fourth period, that is when they threw the double teams. They did not want MJ to figure it out early. The commitment of Dumars here is essentiall, as is his being physically strong and quick on his feet. Furthermore, the Jordan Rules also depended on how each Piston wanted to guard Jordan. That was massive. The coaching staff was willing to get the players’ ideas on the defensive end.

More to Dumars scoring early; that is exactly what Chicago’s opponents hoped for — to employ quick and tough guards because it wasn’t something Jordan fully enjoyed because it took a lot out of him. To wit, John Starks of the New York Knicks and the Hawks’ Mookie Blaylock oft game MJ fits.

The key to assigning players to guard Jordan in a playoff series was getting mentally tough players. For the Pistons, that was Dumars. Jordan employed his own tactics against Dumars —he never let him score early. Because if the Pistons guard hit baskets early in the game, that meant Jordan expended more energy on offense and defense.

Dumars is the only Piston who Jordan never talked trash to — not one word during all their match-ups. They had mutual respect and often shook hands. 

In moving past Detroit, Chicago needed other players to not only step up but to also ignore the Pistons’ bullying tactics. As then-Detroit forward-center John Salley (who later joined Chicago in the second three-peat), when Pippen refused so much as a band aid, they knew it was over.

After Chicago’s first title, how did they fare against the Pistons in the regular season all the way to the sixth title? Chicago went 25-4 against the Pistons. They had truly put Detroit in their rear view mirror.

BULLS MICHAEL JORDAN NBA PISTONS
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