CHICAGO — So there was another bullet in the chamber after all. The Bulls fired, the Pistons went down, and now we are left with 48 minutes of basketball war to determine who gets off the ground and who stays there until next fall.
Seventh Hell. Who needs this? Not the Pistons, who are finding the nickname Windy City really means you never know which way the Bulls are going to blow. Cold and tired — as they did in Detroit on Wednesday — or hot and deadly, as they did Friday night in Game 6. The bad news: Detroit lost. The worse news: It was more than Michael Jordan this time. It was Scottie Pippen pulling up inside and burying shots, and Horace Grant grabbing rebounds as if they came with bonus money, and Craig Hodges, who had been shooting so terribly in this series you could count his baskets on one hand, suddenly finding the bottom of the net and dumping the Pistons there as well. Oh yeah. Jordan had 29, that’s all.
“We are more driven than ever to win this thing,” Jordan yelled after the Bulls demolished the Pistons, 109-91, to force a showdown Sunday at the Palace for the Eastern Conference title. “We are going to Detroit with a clear mind. All bets are off. We did the job.”
No argument there. The Bulls would not budge. Not this time. Never mind that this was the one-year anniversary of their playoff departure last season, courtesy of the Pistons. New year, new story. This time, the defending champions did not even raise a shiver from the Chicago men. But then, the Pistons didn’t really play like defending champions, either.
“We shoulda won, we shoulda won,” Dennis Rodman kept repeating in the locker room, his swollen left ankle throbbing with pain. “We can’t keep talking about experience in a seventh game. We had all the experience in the world tonight and we still didn’t do it.”
You can say that again. Missed shots? You don’t want to know. Bench production? The Pistons subs were uncharacteristically smoked, Vinnie Johnson missed all 10 of his shots. Defense? This might have been the most depressing part of all. For much of the night, the Pistons were a step slow, flailing, scrambling, Chicago beat them with the pass, they buried open shots. If champions revert to form when threatened, well, where was the Detroit form? The Pistons have played three games in this building and have not looked like themselves in any of them. And the Bulls have looked like Giants.
“Take us with you!” the fans here seemed to thunder, raining noise on their heroes as they left the floor. “Take these smells, these sounds, take them, and you can do it!”
I don’t know for sure. But I bet the Bulls are trying to find a plane right now big enough to fit the stadium in the cargo bin.
It is time to ask a serious question here: Can a building really do this? Turn a championship team into a slower, less accurate, less concentrated version of itself — three times in one week? Or are the Bulls getting that much better with each game?
“They broke us down,” said James Edwards, who had a depressing night, scoring just 12 points and picking up five fouls. “They broke down our defense.”
“Why couldn’t you guys step up your game like you usually do?”
He took a deep breath and blew it out.
“They broke us down,” he said.
It bore repeating. Chicago was one explosion after another Friday — a fitting description for this arena as well. Pistons fans here could sense at any moment that the game could just fly away, gone on the wings of Bulls euphoria. They had to be scared in the second quarter, when, with Michael Jordan resting on the bench, the Bulls opened an 11-point lead. The Pistons looked confused, their offense consisted of a few spins and a dump back to the top of the key. Nobody could drive. Nobody could take a good shot. Balls slammed off the side of the backboard. After the defeat in Game 4, Isiah Thomas defended his team, saying the Bulls simply outplayed the Pistons. But on Friday, the Pistons were making their own mistakes. They were losing — and Jordan wasn’t even breathing hard.
How does that song go? “Bet your bottom dollar you lose the blues in Chicago?” Yeah. Well. You can lose a few other things there too. Like your shot. How else do you explain that third quarter, when almost everything the Pistons threw up looked like something, well, they threw up? Gimme that stat sheet again. Six baskets? Twenty-four tries? Five full minutes without a field goal? You knew they were in trouble when Joe Dumars missed a driving lay-up and Isiah rebounded, only to throw up an air ball from the baseline.
Meanwhile, the Bulls, smelling the kill, gave the ball to Jordan and he hung in the air until all the Pistons came down, then bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. He scored 18 points in just over eight minutes.
It ain’t the shoes. On Sunday, we’ll find out what it really is. And what everybody is made of. Understand the mind wars going on here, and maybe you can understand this series. Remember that while the Pistons are blessed and cursed with having been through all this before, the Bulls have never reached a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals. They went out last year in Game 6. If they lost Friday, the whole year would be a wash. They’d have done no better than last season. Surely, that was an enormous motivation.
The Pistons, meanwhile — and this is unfortunate — have been through so much that they can’t shake the idea that there is still one home game left, and that’s all they have to win. Consciously, no one will admit this played a part in defeat. But subconsciously, you had to believe it did. It’s hard to be frightened once you’ve won a championship, and that is too bad, considering how well fear has worked for the Pistons in the past.
“Hey, that’s why the Palace was built,” Thomas said afterwards, trying to sound confident, “For seventh games. Home-court advantage.”
Rodman was more realistic. “We didn’t want to play a seventh game. On any day, any game, a team can get you.”
He moaned and looked at his sore ankle. He had spent the last two days hooked to an electric stimulator. He had hoped to divorce himself from it for a few days, until the Finals next week.
“Now,” he sighed, “I guess I’ll be stuck with that thing until the end of the season.”
Whenever that is.
One more game. Who has the advantage? In the next 24 hours you’ll hear every kind of theory: 1) The Pistons. It’s their home court. 2) The Bulls. They have the momentum. 3) The Pistons. They have experience. 4) The Bulls. They have nothing to lose. Who’s right? Nobody’s right. Theory doesn’t win basketball games, players do, and whoever shows up most ready to play and most capable of executing will walk away with the plane tickets to Portland. About the only thing the Pistons can be happy about is that they won’t have to see in this building anymore. Trying to win here during the playoffs is like trying to douse a five-alarm fire with a garden hose.
And this Chicago fire is hot enough already.
Seventh Hell. Somebody burns. Hold your breath.