The Bulls and the Pistons during the 1980s & early ‘90s
The rivalry between the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons during the late 1980s and early 1990s was one of the most heated in all of pro sports. To say these two teams hated each other would be an understatement, for the truth is they despised one another.
Detroit was led by a native Chicagoan and future Hall of Famer, Isiah Thomas, and were considered the NBA’s rising power team at the time. Thomas’ fiery competitiveness was the engine that motivated a bruising frontcourt made up of Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Dennis Rodman. If ever the Pistons, who often referred to themselves as “The Bad Boys,” sensed fear or uneasiness in an opponent, they would furiously pounce like a pack of wild junkyard dogs, bullying the opposition into submission.
Chicago was also on the upswing during this period, albeit the Bulls were younger than their Motor City counterparts. Chicago’s style of play was also the opposite of Detroit’s, as they often beat teams with grace, agility and athleticism behind the God-given abilities of superstars Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The only thing the Bulls lacked in comparison to the Bad Boys were enough physical players who could legitimately take control or at least hold their own whenever elbows and bodies would begin to be thrown.
Detroit considered the Bulls soft, a team they could easily push around. When Chicago looked at the Pistons, they saw a group of thugs and cheap shot artists who had to resort to dirty tricks because they weren’t as talented. Add those beliefs to the fact that the Bulls and Pistons were also in the same division and would play each other five times during the year — well, that just added fuel to the fire.
There was also a personal side to this rivalry. As mentioned earlier, Isiah Thomas was born and raised in Chicago, so whenever Detroit came to town he was excited to be home and play in front of family and friends. However, the Bulls had a charismatic superstar of their own in Jordan, and by this time fans had all but adopted him as their own, whereas Thomas was often treated with indifference like any other out-of-town player.
Jealousy can make people do ill-advised things, and legend has it that Thomas instigated an alleged “freeze-out” of Jordan at the 1985 All-Star game during Jordan’s rookie year. Here’s the story: Irritated that Jordan chose to wear Nike warm-ups during the NBA’s slam-dunk contest the day before the All-Star Game, Thomas and his agent worked behind the scenes to convince a group of veteran players on the East All-Star squad to ignore the Bulls rookie by refusing to pass him the ball. Jordan played 22 minutes, shot 2-of-9 and scored just seven points in his first ever All-Star game. Afterwards, Jordan deftly deflected talk of a freeze-out by repeatedly pointing out he was just a rookie, and all he wanted to do was blend into the mix. However, even if Jordan wanted to believe Thomas’ freeze-out wasn’t true and tried to let it go, the story simply wouldn’t go away, as it kept coming up time and again. Enough so to give credence to its validity — which naturally would stoke Jordan’s notorious competitive fires all the more.
By the start of the 1987-88 season Detroit looked to be on the verge of winning an NBA title. They had risen steadily under the direction of future Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly, jumping from 37 to 49 wins in Daly’s debut season in 1983-84, to 54-28 and winning the Central Division crown by 1988.
Chicago also posted a 50-win season (50-32) in ’87-88 under second year head coach Doug Collins. It was the Bulls’ first 50-win season in 14 years (1973-74). Jordan captured his second consecutive scoring title, was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, and also won his first NBA MVP award, while rookies Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant were starting to come into their own.
In fact, Pippen made his first career start in the deciding Game 5 of the first-round playoff series against Cleveland, scoring 24 points to help the Bulls to a 107-101 upset win to set up an Eastern Conference Semifinals series against Detroit.
That series would be the second playoff matchup between the two franchises, as the first took place in 1974, with Chicago coming out on top in seven games. This time however, Detroit would end up the victors in five.
Game 1 took place in Detroit where the Pistons coasted to a 93-82 victory. However Chicago ambushed Detroit in Game 2, stealing home court advantage with a 105-95 upset. That loss proved to be a wake-up call for the Pistons, as they suddenly got serious and very physical in Game 3 at the Chicago Stadium, blowing out the Bulls, 101-79. Game 4 took place a day later, also at the Stadium, and the Pistons didn’t let up, pounding Chicago 96-77 in front of their home fans to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Detroit closed out the series a couple of days later at home, winning Game 5, 102-95. However, during the game that night, frustrated at repeatedly being knocked down and bullied, Jordan struck back by popping Thomas with an elbow to the face that left Thomas unconscious for a minute.
Thomas eventually made it back onto the court to close out the game and series, but as the final horn sounded, it was clear to everyone a bitter rivalry was born.
The Pistons then went on to dethrone the defending Eastern Conference Champions, the Boston Celtics, in the next round before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals in seven games.
The following year Detroit tore through the league, posting an NBA-best 63-19 record while the Bulls fell to fifth in the Central Division, going 47-35, despite Jordan winning another scoring title.
While the Pistons easily swept Boston and Milwaukee in the opening two rounds of the playoffs, Chicago needed a miraculous buzzer-beating jumper from Jordan in Game 5 to get by Cleveland in the first round, and then were hard-pressed to survive six brutal games against New York before meeting Detroit for a second straight year in playoffs — but this time in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Detroit’s plan of attack was well choreographed. Their primary goal was to make the Bulls look over their shoulder and lose their poise at every opportunity by using every intimidating, dirty trick in the book. The Pistons believed if they could plant a seed of doubt into Jordan and Pippen’s minds that if either drove in for a layup that they would repeatedly get thrown to the ground, then maybe they would start settling for jumpers far from the rim instead of attacking the basket and energizing their teammates?
The key for the Bulls was to not worry about all that stuff and simply go out and play their game. Easy to say, but very hard to do, especially for a young team that was coached by an equally fiery personality in the likes of Collins who could often get caught up in the emotions of the moment.
Daly and his staff masterminded strategy for slowing Jordan down. It was dubbed the “Jordan Rules,” which basically came down to making Jordan fight for survival.
Detroit’s goal was to funnel Jordan to the crowded middle of the floor where he would get physically assaulted from all sides while being double- and triple-teamed. Although technically Joe Dumars, who was a terrific one-on-one defender in his own right, was assigned to guard Jordan, all five Pistons on the floor were charged with keeping tabs on the Bulls superstar and given free rein to bump, trip and pop the NBA’s best player whenever he came near.
Detroit also set their sights on Pippen, labeling him soft and weak. Rodman and Laimbeer in particular went out of their way to set hard-nosed picks and contest his every move in the hopes of rattling Pippen.
At the start of the series Collins decided to move Jordan to the point, figuring the best way to get the ball into his hands for a shot was to allow him to bring the ball up the floor himself. This strategy caught the Pistons a little off guard in Game 1 as Chicago pulled off a 94-88 upset, snapping Detroit’s 25-game home court winning streak, and giving them their first playoff loss of the year.
The two squads split the next two contests before Detroit decided to increase its defensive pressure another notch in Game 4, successfully limiting Jordan to just eight shots as they evened the series in defeating the Bulls, 86-80, at the Chicago Stadium.
That loss ended up having a major effect on Chicago’s psyche, as for the second year in a row Detroit proved once again they could take the Bulls’ best punch and not fall down.
Detroit went on to win Game 5 on their home floor, 94-85, and then closed out the series in Chicago in Game 6, 103-94. They would then go on to sweep Los Angeles in the Finals to claim the 1989 NBA Championship, while the Bulls and their fans grew more restless by the day.
Before the start of the 1989-90 season Chicago decided a change was in order as the Bulls replaced Collins as the team’s head coach with one of his assistants, Phil Jackson. Like Collins, Jackson was also a former NBA player during the 1970s. But unlike Collins, he wasn’t a highly touted and tightly wound former No. 1 overall draft pick, but was a calm, cerebral middle of the pack second round selection from University of North Dakota who was a backup player most of his career with the New York Knicks, including the year (1973) when New York won the NBA Championship.
One of the first moves Jackson did was hand over the offensive responsibilities to veteran assistant coach Tex Winter, who installed his famed triangle offense, giving the team a free-flowing framework in which to get more players involved in the action besides Jordan, and sometimes Pippen.
Detroit and Chicago went out and posted the top two records in the East that year, with Detroit winning the Central Division again with a record of 59-23, while the Bulls ended up in second place with a mark of 55-27. Once again it quickly became clear that these two teams were again destined to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals — and that’s exactly what happened as Detroit lost just one game during the first two rounds while the Bulls fell only twice during that stretch.
By now the Bulls and Pistons truly hated one another. Chicago openly complained about Detroit’s bullying, particularly the way the Pistons would routinely undercut opponents driving to the basket and how they’d attempt to trip and injure the opposition whenever the referees weren’t looking. All that did was fire up Thomas and the rest of the Bad Boys who enjoyed irritating the Bulls at every opportunity.
Meeting in the playoffs for a third year in a row, the Bulls and Pistons battled tooth-and-nail over the first four games of the series, with the home team winning each time by single digits. Detroit took Game 5, 97-83, on their home floor, but Chicago turned the tables at the Stadium in Game 6 with a 109-91 thrashing to set up a deciding Game 7 back at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Chicago went into that street fight short-handed as starting point guard John Paxson was out of action thanks to a badly sprained ankle suffered in Game 6, and Pippen was struck with an excruciating migraine headache just an hour or so before tip-off. Jordan convinced Pippen to try to ignore the pain play through it, but Pippen was clearly not himself. Detroit sensed something was going on and amped up its defensive pressure at the start of the second quarter and quickly broke the game open with a decisive 31-14 run. By the time the dust had settled, Detroit had coasted to a 93-74 victory, earning a third straight trip to the NBA Finals. Pippen, on the other hand, logged 42 out of a possible 48 minutes that game, but connected on just 1-of-10 from the field for two points, as the entire Bulls team shot just poorly, going 28-of-90 (.311) from the field overall, including 2-of-19 (.105) from the 3-point arc. Detroit then went on to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers in five games to win back-to-back NBA titles.
Bound and determined to get over the hump and never fall short at the hands of the Pistons again, Chicago established the franchise’s then all-time best won-loss record at 61-21 mark in capturing the 1990-91 Central Division crown. As it turned out, the key game of the season for the Bulls during occurred on February 7, 1991 — the last contest of a five-game road trip just before the All-Star break. Chicago went on to defeat Detroit 95-93 behind 30 points from Jordan, who later said, “That’s when I knew we could beat them in the playoffs. Everything came together. I could feel it!”
Once the playoffs tipped off Chicago was a team on a mission, as they easily swept New York and then got past Philadelphia in five to set up another showdown with Detroit for a fourth straight season.
With home-court advantage on their side, Chicago took care of business with a 94-83 victory in Game 1, and then posted a 105-97 win in Game 2 in front of the home fans at the Stadium to assume command of the series. Four days later the Bulls happily delivered a crushing blow to Detroit’s hopes of a possible three-peat by running away with a 113-107 victory in Game 3 on the Pistons’ home floor. The next morning Jordan boldly predicted a series sweep was on the horizon, while Thomas insisted it wasn’t going to happen on his watch. Yet, Chicago went out and dominated from the start in Game 4, putting the Bad Boys out to pasture in stampeding to a 115-94 series sweeping road victory.
The game ended in controversy as a number of Piston players, led by Thomas, decided to leave the court, walking right past Chicago’s bench during the closing seconds of the game, refusing to acknowledge, congratulate or wish the Bulls luck in upcoming the NBA Finals. That complete lack of sportsmanship seemed to sum up this rivalry, at least in Chicago’s view. Many believed the Bulls victory over the Pistons was good overcoming evil. Naturally the media, both local and national, loved to play up this angle.
In any event, the rivalry was now dead. Chicago finally had exorcised their demons, as the Bulls went on to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in five games to capture the franchise’s first of ultimately six NBA Championships.
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