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, inspired 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, folks. 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 dropping the Pistons hopes there as well.
Oh, yeah. Jordan had 29. That’s all.
“We are more driven than ever to win this thing,” said Jordan, after the Bulls demolished the Pistons, 109-91, to force a showdown Sunday at the Palace for the Eastern Conference championship. “We are going to Detroit with a clear mind. All bets are off. We did the job.”
No argument. There was no give from the Bulls. Not this time. This was the anniversary of their NBA departure last season — it was this very night, one year ago, when they sucked wind as Detroit rode off to the airport and the Finals. But new year, new story. This time, the defending champions did not even raise a shiver from the Chicago team. But then, the Pistons didn’t really play like defending champions, either.
Mistakes? You don’t want to know. Missed shots? Many of them were open jumpers. Defense? This might have been the most depressing part of all. For much of the night, the Pistons looked a step slow. Chicago beat them with the pass, got inside. If champions revert to form when threatened, well, where was
the 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 this 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 is it that the Bulls are getting that much better with each game?
“You know that stuff about it being the one-year anniversary of last season?” John Salley had said in the locker room before this game. “Well, don’t you think they know that? Don’t you think they’re talking about that right now, saying remember last year, when we all went home after the game? I’ll bet you anything that’s what they’re talking about.”
It was either that, or how to get rid of the pin when you pull it from the grenade. Chicago was one explosion after another Friday. The Pistons had the lead once all night. In the first quarter. The rest of the night was horrific.
Intense? Try sheer heart-attack, like holding your breath and squeezing all your face muscles. Pistons fans in this building could sense that at any moment, 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. It was a low moment for the Pistons; they 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. Mark Aguirre threw up several bricks; one missed everything. Detroit was called for a cluster of violations, everything from offensive fouls to a technical foul for too many men on the court. Too many men? A championship team? In Game 4’s defeat, Isiah Thomas defended his team, saying the Bulls simply outplayed the Pistons. But on Friday, the Pistons were making their own mistakes, thanks anyhow. No help needed. 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 went nuts. He simply 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 had lost Friday, the whole year would have been a wash. They do 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 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. The more of these playoffs you win, the less scared you get. That’s too bad, seeing how well fear worked for the Pistons. If they are now so confident that the home arena will propel them to glory, that seven games, six games, five games, what’s the difference as long as they win? — well, let’s hope they’re right. They’ll get their wish — although Detroit is 0-3 in playoff Game 7s.
One more game. Of course, everyone now wants to know who has the advantage, and in the next 36 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 in seventh games. 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 glad of is that they won’t have to see in this building anymore this season. Although Detroit won two games during the regular season here, trying to win in Chicago Stadium 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.