Before we return to the National Basketball Association final, let's dwell--as the Bulls themselves have--on their victory over the Detroit Pistons. After all, we're fans, not players, and a little reverie now isn't likely to hurt our performance in appreciating the next game between the Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Magic-Michael matchup in the final is being called a fan's series, but that's wrong; rather, on the surface, it's a nonfan's series, a pairing where the two main players hold a marquee value that attracts even people who don't normally follow sports. Now the series between the Bulls and the Pistons--that was a fan's series, best enjoyed by the fans. The play was too brutal--both physically and mentally--for the players to savor it; it was best enjoyed by proxy, and enjoy it we did. The Bulls-Pistons series was what being a fan is all about: two teams that hate each other, with dramatically different styles of play, with the competitive balance between them on the cusp, and, of course, with our guys, the good guys, coming out on top.
There were two important moments, strategically, in the series; they came in the middle games, two and three, and both with the Bulls on defense. The first game was a blowout, the Bulls springing their well-prepared trap on the Pistons. The fourth game, once the Pistons realized they couldn't compete with the Bulls, was also lackluster, right down to the Pistons' bowing out (pants down, rears to the audience). It was in the second and third games that the hammer came down on Detroit, and watching it strike and listening to the report echo was utterly satisfying.
We got out to see the second game, at the Chicago Stadium, and it was our belief, as the stadium filled, that it was here that the Pistons would find out they were in much deeper than they thought, that the old tricks and the old ways would no longer work. That realization came in the second quarter. The Bulls had outplayed the Pistons in the first frame, but Joe Dumars hit for 15 points and single-handedly kept the Pistons close, down 27-22. In the second quarter, the Bulls brought Craig Hodges, Cliff Levingston, B.J. Armstrong, and Will Perdue off the bench to join Scottie Pippen, and beginning with a Perdue dunk 90 seconds into the frame, they ran the Pistons off the court. Two years ago the Bulls struggled to earn a lead against the Detroit starters, only to watch a fresh lineup come off the bench, at which point they folded, three straight games in a row. Now, however, it was the Bulls' bench that was running the Pistons ragged; they amassed a 16-point lead before the starters began returning and allowed the lead to dwindle to eight at the half, the Pistons huffing and puffing all the way.
The Pistons' would-be comeback set up the play of the game. The Pistons turned up the defensive pressure in the third quarter, and on offense they began running Michael Jordan through a series of vicious picks, like cotton going through a gin. Dennis Rodman blocked Jordan with a forearm shiver, then hit him again. Scottie Pippen, acting the enforcer for probably the first time in his life, blindsided Rodman, whacked him again, then got back across the lane in time to block a Mark Aguirre lay-up. Pippen came down with the ball, took it upcourt on the double, drove, and passed wide to John Paxson, who hit the open 15-foot jump shot to give the Bulls a solid 13-point lead.
Moments later, Pippen rebounded the ball over Rodman at the Pistons' end, waited for traffic to clear, and dribbled slowly upcourt. The entire stadium rose en masse to applaud. Looking across the court at Pippen as the fans stood, the Pistons must have had the sudden feeling of sinking into a cauldron.
The Pistons should have won the next game, in Detroit. The Bulls squandered a big lead and allowed the Pistons to go ahead in the third quarter, then reclaimed the lead but allowed the Pistons to close to within five points late. Then, the Bulls turned the ball over, and Detroit's Vinnie Johnson came down for an easy lay-up. Jordan wouldn't allow it uncontested, however, and he ran Johnson down. Johnson made a tentative and misguided pass to his trailer, Joe Dumars. Jordan stood fast. Dumars, in the worst play of the series, hurled the ball into the air, trying to draw a foul call. The officials, however, wouldn't bite, and a replay from a camera under the basket confirmed that Jordan didn't touch Dumars. He grabbed the ball when it came down, however, and the Bulls came down on the fast break and passed the ball briskly around until Pippen came up with an open shot, which he pounded off the back iron and through the hoop to pad the Bulls' lead to seven. The Pistons never really challenged after that, and the series was, for all intents and purposes, over.
Yet as in some nightmarish myth, the Bulls slew the father only to advance and confront a mirror image of themselves, in the form of the Lakers. The Lakers, like the Bulls, are a team of skilled basketball improvisers who excel in an up-tempo game--especially Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the only player who can challenge Jordan for the title "best in the world." With five NBA championships to his credit, Johnson would probably say that it is Jordan challenging him for the title.
That was the matchup on the surface, "the fan's series." For the aficionado, however, the series was much more a tangle, strategically, than was the Bulls' series with the Pistons. In the semifinals, the Bulls knew what they wanted to do and they did it: they confused the Pistons with a series of unorthodox defensive matchups early in each game, displaying a cavalier attitude about who was going to guard Bill Laimbeer. And they attacked relentlessly on offense, to keep the Pistons back on their heels. They had played the Pistons 5 times during the regular season, 12 times, counting the playoffs, the year before, 11 times the year before that.
They play the Lakers only twice a season, however, and no one--not the Bulls, and not their most knowledgeable fans--knew what would work and what wouldn't beforehand. What everyone expected, though, was a series played, as Johnson said after game one last Sunday, "the way the game's supposed to be played." That, everyone got.
The Bulls were not sharp. They started each of the first three quarters slowly, a sign of a team in search of motivation. That may seem ridiculous, at first, to say a team needed motivation in the NBA final, but the Bulls had focused their entire array of resources on beating the Pistons, and having done so they looked flat in their next game. Furthermore, they needed to feel the Lakers out--what their style was, what their game plan would be. The Bulls are a team that relies on its defense, and the key to defense is reacting to the offense. Few basketball fans would have expected a slow, half-court game to benefit the Lakers rather than the Bulls, but that was the case. When the Lakers ran, the Bulls picked the ball off and ran it right back at them; when the Lakers were patient and went one-on-one down under the hoop, James Worthy and Sam Perkins chewed the Bulls up.
The Bulls were also just plain nervous. No one shot well in the first quarter except Jordan, and he had to keep the Bulls in the game. He took a pass from Pippen on the break, leapt, shook the ball to elude Perkins as he flew through the air, and somehow made it to the hoop for a slam dunk to make it 21-20 Lakers. With 40 seconds to go, head coach Phil Jackson pulled out one of his tricks, bringing in outside shooter Hodges for center Bill Cartwright. Jordan went one-on-one in a spread-out court to put the Bulls ahead, but then Johnson drew a double team on offense and passed outside to Perkins, who hit a three-pointer (make note of that play) to put the Lakers up 29-28 with six seconds to play. This time, however, Jordan had the final say, rushing the ball upcourt and feeding it to Horace Grant under the hoop on a bullet pass (a la Magic) for the lay-in to give the Bulls a 30-29 first-quarter lead.
The Lakers went out to a 41-34 lead as the Bulls again started slowly after the break, but the bench rallied behind, again, of all people, Will Perdue. The Bulls went on the first of two ten-point spurts and held a 53-51 lead at the half.
Yet the Bulls again came out slowly in the third, and this time the doldrums lasted the full 12 minutes. Johnson hit a long, long three-pointer, from beyond the time line, at the buzzer to give the Lakers a 75-68 lead going into the fourth.
Here, Jackson sent Jordan, Pippen, Perdue, Armstrong, and Levingston into the game--a mobile lineup meant to press the Lakers--but Pippen picked up his fifth foul and had to sit down. With scrappy, ugly, but effective play on defense, however, and with Jordan converting the turnovers into baskets at the offensive end, the Bulls rallied to take a 78-75 lead.
No sooner had Pippen returned than Jordan picked up his fifth foul. Jackson, however, left both on the floor, and in fact had them help each other out. They began to consistently double-team Johnson as soon as he crossed the center line. Jackson let loose Jordan and Pippen--"our snapping, scratching, and snarling Dobermans," as assistant coach Johnny Bach called them in last week's Sports Illustrated--to key on Johnson, and the Lakers didn't respond well. "They came at us high to get the ball out of my hands early, and we didn't attack them," Johnson said.
Pippen hit a 16-foot jump shot to give the Bulls breathing room at 89-86, cuing "Rock and Roll Part 2" and bringing the stadium to full volume. After an exchange of free throws it was 91-89 with a minute to go. The Bulls' defensive pressure then forced the Lakers' Vlade Divac to take an outside jumper, and he missed.
The Bulls had the ball and a 91-89 lead with 40 seconds to go. What were the odds that two Jordan shots would rim out and a Perkins three-pointer--a high-pressure version of his first-quarter shot--would go in in the last 24 seconds? That, however, is what happened, making the Lakers 93-91 victors.
After the game, Jordan followed Perkins onto the interview stand. Jordan played on North Carolina's 1982 national championship team with Perkins and Worthy, making this series old home week for the Tar Heels. As Perkins was being led away by NBA officials and Jordan was ushered in, Jordan called out, "Nice shot, Sammy."
Jordan sat down and added, "It took a North Carolina guy to beat me."
The Bulls had an almost week-long layoff between beating the Pistons and playing the Lakers, but even that wasn't enough to prepare them for the dramatic shift in tone from one series to the other: they had to go from executing a strategy to improvising on the floor, from a grudge match to a high-tension setting that rewarded cool heads, from rugby back to pure basketball of the highest level anyone--fan, nonfan, or aficionado--has seen in a long time. Magic-Michael hype or not, this had the makings of one of the great NBA finals.
We found that the only way to come down after the game was to ride home standing between the cars of an el train. As we passed people sitting on their porches and kids playing ball on sandlots and blacktops, amid the rattle of the rails and the moiling smells of spring flowers and outdoor barbecues, we calmed ourselves with thoughts of the series with the Pistons--one last time, for the time being.