Those who have followed the story of Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls are fully aware of the struggles that they faced with the Detroit Pistons in the late 1980s. Indeed, for three consecutive seasons, the Bulls’ season ended in a defeat at the hands of the Pistons. The Bad Boys they were called, because they did anything and everything humanly possible on the basketball court to get an edge.
The Bad Boys of Detroit would push, grab, clutch, hit, pull, shove and stare down opponents to inflict physical as well as psychological damage. If an opponent tried to establish position in the post, they would repeatedly elbow him in the back and even at times take shots at his ribs to throw him of his course and also get him thinking about the inflicted punishment as opposed to getting the ball and scoring.
Thus, when Michael Jordan came flying down the lane or tried to go down on the low block, that would be the kind of treatment he would receive. Mind you, MJ’s competitive spirit made it as such that he would accept any challenge placed before him, but early in his career he struggled to bring his teammates along with him for the ride. Consequently, the playoff match ups between the Bulls and Pistons were rarely about talent, but instead a battle of wills. And for the most part, the Pistons always won those types of confrontations.
In his book Playing for Keeps, David Halberstam had this to share on Bulls-Pistons battles:
“Greatness in the NBA does not just require great skill, it demands the ability to go out and play hard night after night, and the ability to inspire one’s teammates to play hard as well. That was what set players such as Bird, Johnson, and Thomas apart—not only their fierce will but its effect on their teammates. By 1990, the Bulls and Pistons looked about even; in fact, if anything, in terms of pure talent, the Bulls looked superior. But so far, the Pistons owned the Bulls because they managed to get inside the heads of the Chicago players.”
In Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, Scottie Pippen faced a headache that essentially rendered him incapable of seeing properly; when pressed on his availability to play prior the game by then head coach Phil Jackson, Jordan butted in and stated that Pippen would play (Pippen was going to decline to play). The small forward was ineffective and the Bulls were defeated in a 19-point rout. The perception was that the pressure got to Pippen and the rest of his teammates.
At the conclusion of the postseason, Michael Jordan approached trainer Tim Grover to figure out ways to strengthen himself for the grind of the regular season and playoffs. Truth be told though, his new training regimen would be geared more so than anything for the Pistons. MJ felt that he needed to get stronger to deal with the pounding that the Bad Boys put on him.
In the process of strengthening his body, he also did the same thing with his mind. Phil Jackson made him understand that in order to truly conquer his demons, he would need the help of his teammates; and to obtain it, he would have to be willing to share the burden of the team and spotlight with all of them.
And so, Jordan used the regular season to mold his new approach where he leaned more on his team. This meant finding Paxson when he was open, feeding Bill Cartwright in the post for some occasional shot attempts and trusting Horace Grant to score on the block but also in the high post when open.
Fast forward to the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals and Michael would have to prove that the hard lessons that Phil Jackson tried to teach him had finally paid off. In the first two games, the Bulls were able to defeat the Pistons thanks in large part to their home crowd that energized them past Detroit. Indeed, Jackson could afford to rest his starters at home given that his bench players played well in Chicago. The truest of tests would come in Game 3 in Detroit.
The Bulls would start the game off by taking a 16-point lead in the first quarter thanks in large part to an impressive defensive effort from their starters. While Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant did a good job of battling the Pistons big men in the post, the star of this game defensively was by far Scottie Pippen.
Very rarely do we see teams successfully apply full court presses in the playoffs (the last team to do it that I can recall was the 2001 76ers), but the Bulls were able to apply this tactic thanks in large part to their starting small forward. Pippen would trap the point guard at half court and then rotate back to the open man, which often happened to be Bill Laimbeer. Because he was guarding the Pistons center, they could not run pick and rolls with him given his tremendous ability to trap or switch on ball handlers.
The end result was that the Pistons offense often became discombobulated and they had to settle for some low percentage shots. Jordan and Pippen thrived on the boards, boxing out and cleaning out the glass and then getting into their offense.
Pippen also shut down the likes of Isiah Thomas, Vinnie Johnson and Mark Aguirre in Game 3; always managing to stay in front of them on defense and taking away passing angles and contesting shots with his long arms.
Also, Horace Grant was an extremely underrated defender. In Game 3, he guarded Aguirre and also even switched out on players such as Dumars and Vinnie Johnson and then lead them directly to where his help was.
In truth, the Pistons were completely outmatched against the Bulls in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. Whenever Chicago’s starters were on the court, Detroit always faced an uphill battle as they consistently faced double-digit deficits (Chicago would eventually sweep Detroit, winning all four games by an average of 11.5 points). However, whenever either Pippen or Jordan went to the bench to rest or due to foul trouble (Pippen had to sit midway through the third quarter after picking up his fourth foul), that’s when the Pistons would make their move and cut into the lead.
The Bulls backup guards struggled in the face of the Pistons defense and thus failed to get Chicago into its offense. B.J. Armstrong and Craig Hodges were stuffed when bringing up the ball against pressure and the low percentage shots that resulted from the Detroit defense led to easy transition opportunities for the Pistons.
On defense, Detroit elbowed players in chest as well as in the neck, they tripped and shoved players to the ground from behind and even grabbed and hit some Bulls players in the throat; but in the end all the intimidation tactics were for naught because the Bulls had this new Michael.
Throughout the second half of Game 3, Jordan did an excellent job of creating high quality shot opportunities for himself when matched up against one defender. Whether it was by posting up (he made defenders look silly with his post moves), setting up his man to think drive but then elevating for the jump shot or getting himself to the free throw line, the former Tar Heel was just too much to handle for the Pistons.
Consequently, Detroit sent some double teams at him to make him either give up the ball or take a tough shot. Impressively enough, Jordan not only accepted the extra attention but at times it seemed as though he might try to beat both defenders; but instead he created openings for his big men either at the rim or on the baseline for uncontested jump shots.
Even late in the fourth quarter, MJ continued to look for his teammates when double-teamed which created some indecision on the part of the Pistons defense. With the Detroit scrambling to take the ball out of Jordan’s hands, they not only allowed a Bulls player to get open; but their rotations resulted in Pippen getting single coverage once he caught the ball in scoring position.
Jordan finished the game with a typical playoff line: 33 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals in a win on the road. And yet, there was nothing typical about this game. His performance would come to signify a changing of the guard; the 1990s would belong to him and his team.
But we still needed Game 3 to know for sure…