The turning point--irreversible, as it turned out--in the play-off series between the Bulls and the Detroit Pistons came here at the Chicago Stadium, in game four, on Memorial Day. The Pistons emerged looking shaken and frazzled following their amazing loss in game three, two days before, in which they had blown a 14-point lead in the final eight minutes of play. The Bulls led the series two games to one and would all but advance to the finals against the Los Angeles Lakers if they padded their lead to 3-1. Even so, the Pistons had that ill-fated, doomed look that had typified the Bulls' opponents through the playoffs; they appeared to be waiting for someone or something to change the momentum of the series in their favor. We were seated behind the Pistons' bench, where their coach, Chuck Daly, kept leaning forward on his chair when the Pistons had the ball, saying over and over to himself, "Good shot, good shot," knowing that the most obvious sign of a rattled team is poor, inexplicable shot selection, and that in the closing moments of the previous game they had picked very poor shots indeed. The Bulls, meanwhile, played confident, up-tempo basketball and opened a 17-10 lead; but Isiah Thomas--who got off to a bad start with three turnovers himself in the first quarter--decided to take direct action, stole the ball from Craig Hodges, and drove for a layup following a previous Mark Aguirre basket to close the game to 17-14.
Typical of a game in a hard-fought play-off series, every moment was charged with tension. Each play was part of a larger body of plays making up the entire series--plays called in this situation that had worked here, plays called in that situation that had failed there--and the concept of momentum was almost palpable. When Michael Jordan hit two straight baskets--the second as he pulled up and shot following a Scottie Pippen steal--he appeared to be Big Mo personified, or, rather, one of those esoteric Greek gods--Conpendulus, guardian of momentum, perhaps--who had taken a human form so that he could alter the course of human events. That was the giddy state he had left us in after game three.
The Bulls and Pistons then exchanged baskets, with Bill Cartwright hitting his awkward, mechanical jumper from 12 feet to give the Bulls the seven-point lead they would never again see in the game. The Pistons brought in four new players, leaving Thomas the only starter they had on the court, and they whittled the lead down and held the Bulls to 13 points total in the second quarter. It was painful basketball to watch--not an abrupt shift in momentum but the slow tightening of a vise. After the game, the Sun-Times' Lacy Banks--a good basketball beat reporter and a bad writer on any subject at all-- asked Daly about the ugliness of this win. "Well, it depends on where you're coming from," said Daly, who has a low and somewhat blustery voice, faintly arched with the rhythms of a wrestling announcer. "I think if you're a true basketball fan you saw a lot of beauty in that game." There was one beautiful moment after the Pistons pulled even at 39 toward the end of the half. Thomas shut the offense down in the Pistons' final possession and went one-on-one against John Paxson and hit a three-point jumper to put the Pistons up for the first time in the game, 42-39, going into the locker room.
For the third straight series the Bulls played a team better--man for man--than they were, but they had beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks with a simple strategy they also used against the Pistons. That strategy was to play in spurts, to open big early leads to keep the other team's starters on the floor, to shuttle reserves in while the opponents struggled to get back in the game, and then to pull away at the end with another spurt.
It was a strategy the Pistons were well aware of. Bill Laimbeer--who it was rumored was having a poor shooting day because he had jammed his right thumb in practice--spent much of the game on the bench, where he greeted his teammates during time-outs with the expression of a worried mother welcoming her daughter home from a late date. "Forty-eight minutes, forty-eight minutes," he called, "forty-eight minutes of basketball and we win this game." The idea being that if the Pistons played solid, consistent ball for the entire game and deprived the Bulls of their spurts, the Pistons would win out in the end.
The hole in Laimbeer's 48 minutes came early in the third quarter. Jordan scored on a drive to give the Bulls the lead 51-50. Horace Grant stripped Thomas in the backcourt and passed ahead to Pippen for a lay-up. The crowd was loud and in the game. Grant grabbed an offensive rebound the next time down, but couldn't convert, then came up with a loose ball on the defensive end, passed it ahead to Pippen, and he jammed it for a five-point lead. Shouting filled the stadium and seemed to rise and fall at the same time--like steam rising from asphalt during a summer rain--and the Pistons called time-out. There was another dynamic at play, however. Within the next two and a half minutes the Pistons again sent in their entire second team at once. It was the thin, menacing knife-edge John Salley at one forward and punk Dennis Rodman (whose face and jug ears make him resemble an African American version of Alfred E. Newman) at the other. The designated Bulls killer, goateed James Edwards at center (does he score against anybody else?) and Vinnie Johnson at guard. Johnson would be a designated Bulls killer too if he didn't kill so many other teams; he is known as "The Microwave" because his shooting touch heats up quickly. Short, muscular, and excitable, in the white shoes the Pistons wore to offset the Bulls' black he looked like the bodybuilders one sometimes sees on the street, all muscles and tight shorts perched atop dainty dancing feet. These four were teamed with Isiah Thomas, who played aggressively to keep Jordan as busy on the defensive end of the court as he needed to be on the offensive end. Whether they matched up well or whether their freshness showed against their wearied opponents, it was that group that slew the Bulls in the end. There was simply nothing the Bulls could do to play with them. As Grant later explained, "Laimbeer and [Rick] Mahorn put their bodies on us and wore us down for a quarter and a half, and Rodman and Salley with their quickness--they had the advantage."
Within one minute of Johnson's entering the game, he hit Edwards on their favorite pick-and-roll play, with Edwards pulling up to hit the jumper, and the Pistons had the lead to stay. The Bulls fell to 10 points down with four minutes to go, and all of us--one could almost hear the whispers--said to ourselves, "Time for another miracle," but, as when a character in The Arabian Nights has already used up three wishes, nothing happened, and doom awaited.
The end was relatively quick and painless after that--both in the game and in the series. The Bulls led early both in game five in Detroit and in the finale game six back in Chicago a week ago--even holding the lead into halftime in Detroit--but in both cases the Pistons made the same inevitable substitutions, bringing in their quick second team, and dragged the Bulls down. There was, in fact, something reassuring in how swift and simple it was and in Jordan's extreme weariness at the end. (He missed seven of the 12 fouls shots he took in game six--always a key indicator of how tired he is.) Coach Doug Collins had seen it coming after game four, saying, "They had a few more weapons they could go to. They kept running fresh people at us." When writers pursued the topic with follow-up questions, Collins said, "Every one of you guys has written about the differences on the bench of the two teams. I don't think it's any mystery. Right?"
There was something of comfort in the fatality of that. Roger Angell has written of baseball that it's better when one's team isn't expected to win and tries to come from behind, and when it falls just short there is a pleasant finality, that the team was spent and used everything it could, and that is what a fan settles for--in baseball as in life. The same applies to basketball, and--while we usually fight the instantaneous "wait till next years" and "if onlies"--the loss to the Pistons left us thinking, persistently, "Well we add J.R. Reid and Kenny Battle in the draft and we go at them again."
Cheery as this thinking is, it doesn't quite do justice to the season just ended. There ought to be some sort of happy ending, as in the silent movie The Last Laugh, where the director puts a board on the screen saying something like, "Our character would probably wind up decrepit and die miserably, but who wants to see that? Why don't we have him win the lottery?" And in the next scene he's crusing down the avenue in the backseat of a touring car. Of course, we don't need to resort to such fantasy; all we have to do is remember game three.
The Bulls, as we said, were down 14 with eight minutes to play. They hit a shot, stopped the Pistons, and hit another to get the lead down to ten, then Pippen hit a three-pointer and we were within reach at seven. At three minutes to play the lead was four, but Pippen missed both free throws following a foul. The Bulls--and especially Michael Jordan--did not let up after that seemingly crushing blow. Pippen and Grant hit all the key shots up until the last one, but the buckets in between all belonged to Jordan. His performance was vintage. He drew himself up, his shoulders hunched, his head low and pitched forward, the dribble high and daring; he seemed like a wave, somehow holding itself back for a greater surge--a surge that was inevitable and unstoppable.
Grant tied it with free throws, but that gave the Pistons the ball. Then, however, we got some home cooking from the referees, with Laimbeer called for an illegal screen with nine seconds to play. Collins after the game: "I said, 'Get the ball to Michael and then everyone else get the fuck out of the way.'" It was advice the Pistons could have heeded. Jordan cut back and took the inbounds pass, with the tall, agile Rodman on his tail. Then he took the ball on the drive down the right-hand side of the lane, with Thomas waiting ahead, fixed, trying to draw the charge. Michael cut right and used Thomas as a pick on his own man, brushing off Rodman, and he lept and he paused and he hovered and...
A friend of ours whose television was on the fritz was listening to the game on the radio. Jim Durham and Johnny "Red" Kerr described the drive and then they screamed and screamed and screamed.
Did anyone need to be told what had happened?