(originally published September 11, 2015)
Once upon a time, division supremacy mattered. Players fought for and took pride in winning their division. It meant something. Today, the new playoff seeding rules make divisions irrelevant. But back in the Jordan Rules day, the Central Division title was the thing. It was an ugly bloody war of attrition.
Michael Jordan was the beginning. He was the middle. He was the end. He was everything in 1988. In a league with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Jordan was the best player in the NBA. He was the MVP in 1987-88. He was the Defensive Player of the Year. He averaged 35 points and 6 assists. The Chicago Bulls won 50 games. But, the Bulls had not been to the NBA Finals. Ever. Neither had the Detroit Pistons.
But the Detroit Pistons had been to the Eastern Conference Finals the year before, a series that was memorialized by Isiah Thomas throwing the ball into Larry Bird’s hands with four seconds left. It turned the series from the Pistons up 3-2, to the Celtics up 3-2, and the eventual winner. The Pistons let a prime opportunity slip away.
In 1988, both the Bulls and Pistons finished off their first-round match-ups. The Bulls beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pistons beat the Washington Bullets. Then they met each other, the two best teams in the Central Division.
The Bulls depended heavily on Michael Jordan. Pistons coach, Chuck Daly understood the basics. If he kept Jordan in check the rhythm of the team would be off. In game one, Michael Jordan scored 29 points. He was the only starter in double figures. The Bulls lost. In game two, three Bulls were in double figures, Jordan, Sam Vincent, and Charles Oakley and the Bulls won. In game three, Scottie Pippen had his best outing with 15 points but Vinnie Johnson dropped in 23 points off the Pistons bench, outscoring the Bulls bench by himself. The Pistons took the lead in the series and never looked back, winning it in 5, en route to the NBA Finals.
The next year, 1989, any thought of dethroning the Pistons was imaginary thinking. The Pistons had the best record in the NBA. They were a seasoned team on a mission. The bitter taste of losing to the Lakers hung with them all season. The Bulls weren’t as consistent, winning 47 games, but Jordan did his Jordan last-second shot thing (again) when he demoralized the Cleveland Cavaliers who thought they had the Bulls beat. Then Jordan hit his game-winner in Craig Ehlo’s face to advance to the second round. The Bulls swept through the Knicks and met the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Both teams despised one another. Real ugly animosity, not social media-manufactured emotion just for the sake of it. Hate, like if you were on fire- I wouldn’t spit on you.
The Pistons resented Michael Jordan. When Jordan entered the league so spectacularly, veterans like Isiah Thomas were jealous of the attention and the commercials. Thomas froze Jordan out in the 1985 All-Star game, refusing to pass him the ball. Tensions continued from there. Thomas was from Chicago, the star player from the bad part of town who made good and filled the city with pride. Now Jordan had replaced him. It didn’t sit well with Thomas. Collectively the Bad Boy Pistons thought the Bulls were soft, unwilling to fight when things got tough. The Bulls were the suburbs. The Pistons were the ‘hood.
So when the Pistons and Bulls met in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1989 it was bound to get ugly. Chuck Daly had incorporated what he called “the Jordan Rules.” The idea was simple enough. Smother and focus everything upon Michael Jordan. Whenever he had the ball, grab and trap and pull and do all the little dirty tricks you can get away with it. Eventually Jordan would get fatigued. And fatigued players miss shots.
The Pistons used this strategy relentlessly, bullying Jordan every minute he was on the court. It allowed them to escape a 2-1 hole. The Pistons won three games in a row with defense- the Bulls never scored more than 94 points. The Pistons returned to the NBA Finals and won the title.
The next year the Bulls changed coaches. Phil Jackson was promoted and Doug Collins was booted out. Jackson went to the Triangle Offense, a perfect antidote for the Jordan Rules. Teams couldn’t isolate Jordan and take him out of the game because the Triangle was based on shared ball movement. With Jackson, the Bulls had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, 55 wins. The Pistons won 59 games. So the showdown was on.
In the playoffs of 1990, the Bulls swept Milwaukee and beat Philadelphia, losing only one game in the series. The Pistons were equally efficient. They swept Indiana and lost only one game to the Knicks.
Hate is good. Sports animosity and rivalry is based upon it. The Bulls and Pistons didn’t disappoint. Michael Jordan scored more points than any other player that year in the playoffs (587) and the Pistons hated him for it. Bill Laimbeer had the most rebounds (287) and the Bulls despised Laimbeer.
In game 1, the Pistons defense lived up to its reputation. Michael Jordan had 34 points but he took 27 shots to do it. The Bulls bench had 12 points, half the points of the Pistons bench who scored 27 points. Isiah Thomas was underwhelming, 8 points but Joe Dumars led the Pistons with 27 and a win. In game 2, Michael Jordan shot 31%. More Pistons defense. In game 3, Jordan took 32 shots and had 47 points. Pippen dropped in 29. The Bulls won. But only by 5 points.
The Triangle sharing offense was stuck on Jordan. Jordan had 42 in game 4 to tie the series. The Pistons won game 5 and the Bulls blew the Pistons out in game 6 to set up a game 7 in Detroit.
Isiah in game 7 dished 11 assists, had 21 points. Jordan put up 27 shots again and the 17 points by the Bulls bench was overwhelmed by the Pistons bench that put in 33 points and 16 rebounds. The Pistons proved- once again- that a Michael Jordan team was no match for their defense and offensive depth, particularly with an ailing Scottie Pippen. The Pistons returned to the NBA Finals and repeated as champions.
The last and final (Bulls- Pistons) border war was the most controversial. Everyone knows the ending, know that the Bulls beat the Pistons on their home floor and the Pistons, in a classless move, walked off the floor without shaking the Bulls hands. But no one remembers that it was a sweep, that the Bulls wiped the floor with the Pistons. The decisive fourth game, an elimination game, was a beat down. The Pistons lost by 21 points. No one remembers that the Pistons vaunted defense had reached the end of the line. The Bulls scored whenever they wanted, however they wanted.
And so it was. The Bulls celebrated without the Pistons acknowledging their presence. The rivalry was over. The Central Division would belong to the Bulls as long as Michael Jordan was in the NBA. It made sense. That much emotion, that much ugliness, and jealousy, that much intensity couldn’t last longer than the four years the Pistons and Bulls met in the playoffs with everything on the line.