LOOKBACK: Moments that defined the Bulls-Pistons rivalry

Delfin Dioquino
LOOKBACK: Moments that defined the Bulls-Pistons rivalry
Before emerging as the greatest team of the 1990s, the Bulls had to get through the 'Bad Boy' Pistons

MANILA, Philippines – In sports and in life, there is a saying that to be the best, one needs to beat the best. 

For Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, it was the Detroit Pistons

Before emerging as the greatest team of the 1990s, the Bulls had to get through the “Bad Boy” Pistons, and for several years, they always fell short. 

Here are the moments that defined the Bulls-Pistons rivalry:

Brewing rivalry

Jordan did it all in the 1987-1988 season, becoming the first player to win the Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards while also capturing the All-Star Game MVP plum.

It was also the season when Jordan reached the second round of the playoffs after first-round exits in his first 3 years in the NBA. 

But standing in Jordan and the Bulls’ way were the Pistons. 

Jordan was expected to dominate after averaging a whopping 45.2 points in the Bulls’ first round win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the defensive-minded and rugged Pistons found a way contain “His Airness.” 

While it was only the first time the two teams faced each other in the postseason during the Jordan era, the Pistons in advance had laid out a plan to slow down the best player in the league.

Just weeks before the playoffs, Jordan torched the Pistons with a season-high 59 points and Detroit coach Chuck Daly did not want that happening again. 

“We made up our minds right then and there that Michael Jordan was not going to beat us by himself again,” Daly told Sports Illustrated in 1989. “We had to commit to a total team concept to get it done.”

Thus, the “Jordan Rules” were born. 

Hounded by Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, who have 13 All-Defensive Team selections combined, Jordan was limited to just 27.4 points in 5 games. 

The only time Jordan breached the 30-point mark was his 36-point explosion in their 105-95 Game 2 win, the Bulls’ lone victory in the series. 

In their 4 wins, the Pistons clobbered the Bulls by an average of 14.8 points, proving Jordan and his crew still had a long way to go. 

The Migraine Game

After succumbing to the Pistons in the conference semifinals and conference finals in past two years, the Bulls were primed to get over the hump against their tormentors in the 1989-1990 season. 

Scottie Pippen had already transformed into a star in his own right as he gained his first All-Star nod – providing the Bulls another major threat for opponents to focus on defensively aside from Jordan. 

This was also the season the Bulls replaced Doug Collins with Phil Jackson, who employed the triangle offense innovated by his deputy Tex Winter, a style of play geared towards team basketball. 

Jordan and the Bulls met the defending champion Pistons again in the conference finals and dragged the best-of-seven series to a do-or-die match.

Momentum was on the side of the Bulls after winning Game 6 by 18 points – putting the Pistons’ title-retention bid in jeopardy. 

But just as Bulls were about to make history as they sought to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time, Pippen suffered from a severe migraine in Game 7. 

With Pippen not in his lethal form, finishing with just 2 points on a woeful 1-of-10 shooting, the Bulls got blown out 74-93. 

Jordan was still his usual self with 31 points, 9 assists, and 8 rebounds, but he did not receive sufficient help from his teammates as Horace Grant was the only other Bulls player in double figures with 10 points. 

Isiah Thomas had 21 points, 11 assists, and 8 rebounds, while Rodman, Bill Laimbeer, Mark Aguire, and John Salley all finished in twin digits. 

“We had a chance to beat them. We just did not respond,” Jordan said in Episode 4 of The Last Dance. “We got to the hill. We almost looked over the hill. I was absolutely devastated. I cried on the bus.”

The Pistons went on to win their second straight championship with a five-game conquest of the Portland Trail Blazers. 

Flip the switch

As shown in The Last Dance, Jordan and the Bulls immediately returned to work instead of sulking from another heartbreak from the Pistons.

Jordan underwent weight training and put on 15 pounds as the rest of the team followed suit. 

“I was brutally beaten up and I wanted to administer pain. I wanted to start fighting back,” Jordan said. 

The Bulls’ offseason work paid dividends as they matched the 3 regular season victories they compiled against the Pistons in 17 matches over the last 3 years in the 1990-1991 season alone.

Also, for the first time in NBA history, the Bulls finished No. 1 in the Eastern Conference with an impressive 61-21 record.

The Bulls ran roughshod over the New York Knicks with a 3-0 sweep in the first round of the playoffs and demolished the Philadelphia 76ers in 5 games to set up another conference finals date with the Pistons. 

“We had matured in a lot of ways, physically and mentally. It was time for us to be the top team in the game,” Pippen said. 

Sweet revenge

The Bulls won the first 3 games convincingly, and in Game 4, they completely left the Pistons to dust with a rousing 115-94 win to punch their ticket to their first-ever NBA Finals appearance. 

Jordan recorded 29 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists, while Pippen had 23 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds, and 3 steals.

On the other hand, no Pistons player scored at least 20 points. 

“We were tasting victory over a team that just kicked your butt for the last 3 or 4 years. The gratification – you truly cannot put it into words,” Grant said. 

But before the series wrapped up, the Pistons had to live up to their bad boy image, with several players – among them Thomas and Rodman – walking off the court and refusing to shake hands.

Obviously, that left a bitter taste in the mouth for the Bulls and Jordan, who shook hands with the Pistons in their 3 previous playoff defeats. 

“We had gotten past them, and to me, that was better, in some ways, than winning the championship,” Jordan said.

The Bulls met the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals and made quick work of the best-of-seven affair in just 5 games to capture the title. 

While Jordan admitted his hate for the Pistons remains to this day, it cannot be denied their battles shaped the Bulls’ fortitude and mental toughness that became the building blocks of their dynasty in the 1990s. – Rappler.com

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Delfin Dioquino

Delfin Dioquino dreamt of being a PBA player, but he did not have the skills to make it. So he pursued the next best thing to being an athlete – to write about them. He took up journalism at the University of Santo Tomas and joined Rappler as soon as he graduated in 2017.