FOR STARTERS,ONE GETS AWAYWORST PART? WEARY TEAM COULD HAVE STOLEN GAME

CHICAGO — I must be honest. Before they ever jumped it up Sunday afternoon, I wanted the Pistons to send five YMCA guys out there and let them play the Bulls. Lose big. Why not? I figured Detroit would never win Game 1 anyhow, no way, not after playing so hard Friday night against the Celtics while the Bulls sat around, foaming at the mouth. Let the maniac fans here scream themselves hoarse. Let Chicago win by 400 points. Let the real Pistons rest. See ya in Game 2.

Which is what makes Sunday even harder to take. The worst part wasn’t Mark Aguirre getting blocked three times on one play. The worst part wasn’t Michael Jordan yelling at the Pistons as if he were Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. The worst part wasn’t Will Perdue — Will Perdue? — making a key basket, although that was pretty bad.

No. The worst part was, the Pistons still could have won this game. Really. They could have won it. Hey, any day the Bulls need Cliff Levingston to bail them out is a day you want to attack. Consider this: The Pistons got one basket from Bill Laimbeer — and five fouls — no baskets from John Salley
— and four fouls — they had to literally beg to go to the free-throw line themselves, they had nine of their shots blocked, 11 of their passes stolen — and they still were right in it in the fourth quarter. “If we could have gotten that one little ummmph,” Mark Aguirre said, making a fist and pushing it in the air, after the Pistons fell short, 94-83, “we could have won this easily. But it wasn’t there.”

He looked at his hand as it opened and fell. “We’ve logged a lot of minutes these last few weeks. I guess it takes its toll.”

Sure it does. The Pistons barely had time to shower off the green dirt of Boston before diving into the red mud of the Bulls. And whose fault is that? The Pistons like it tough? They got it tough. They lost perhaps the only game this series where Michael Jordan looks like he came to Earth in a hospital instead of a space ship from Krypton.

“It’s possible today was the best chance we’ll have to beat them in their building,” coach Chuck Daly admitted with a sigh. “The Bulls did not play that great.”But who’s who?

And yet they won. Which is what we often say about the Pistons, isn’t it?
“Didn’t play great, found a way to win.” That’s the scary part, folks. Every year we come back to this house of horrors, this place where the Chicago mascot, Benny the Bull, now does a violent dance with a Pistons doll at center court, smashing it, punching it, body-slamming it, as the crowd shows its college education by cheering “DETROIT S —-!” Every year we come back here, and we see the Bulls looking more and more like the Pistons. It’s like
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” I half expect to find pods under the Detroit lockers this morning.

Here were the Bulls, making up for poor offense with stellar defense (sound familiar?), stealing the ball from Isiah Thomas, ripping it out of Laimbeer’s hands, poking it away from Aguirre over and over again. Here were the Chicago big men dominating the boards — wasn’t that supposed to be the Pistons’ role?
— Horace Grant grabbing 10 rebounds, Bill Cartwright grabbing nine and Will Perdue — Will Perdue? — grabbing six.

Here was the Chicago bench, for the last few years the weakest link in the chain, and even it was coming alive, scoring 30 points, or just seven fewer than all the Pistons’ starters combined. When the Bulls needed to douse a Detroit rally in the fourth quarter, it was Craig Hodges nailing a huge three-point basket. It was B.J. Armstrong popping a jump shot, then making a steal. It was Will Perdue pulling down a rebound and dropping in a 12-footer.

Will Perdue?

Wait. What about Jordan, you ask? He scored only 22 points, which he can do sleeping on the bench. But Michael, it seems, has a new role: team tough guy. In 48 minutes Sunday, he managed to call almost all the Pistons names, he pushed his face into a few elbows, he cursed at Mark Aguirre, cursed at Dennis Rodman, he drove on John Salley, scored on him, then turned around and popped a finger, as if ringing John up on a cash register. We all know how dedicated Michael is to beating Detroit this year. I’m sure Nike is probably working on a shoe right now: the Piston Stomper. Spike Lee will spin around as if inside a washing machine, saying: “It kills the Pistons. Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?”

“When they play aggressively, we play aggressively,” Jordan barked afterward. And then we saluted, and then he left. Bench boosts Bulls

And yet, Jordan’s jaws are not what worry me. One of these days he’s going to bite his tongue off anyhow, and then all he’ll say is, “Hey, Laimbeer, you mmphhlyzp” and why should we worry about that? No. What worries me is this improved play from the Bulls’ bench and the increased confidence of Scottie Pippen (18 points) and Cartwright (16 points). And what really worries me is the home-court advantage the Bulls have in this series. The Pistons, for all their success, have not won in this building all year, and the Bulls have not lost a playoff game here in their last 14 tries. It certainly doesn’t get easier the deeper you go into the series. I mean, this place is so hostile, they booed the PA guy when he said an illegally parked car had “Michigan plates.” “BOOOOOOO! MICHIGAN! BOOOOOO!” It’s like sitting in the middle of some ancient pagan ritual, all the screaming, the howling, the painted faces. Loud? The noise in Chicago Stadium is what a pigeon hears when he gets sucked inside an airplane engine. By Tuesday, I am expecting human sacrifice.

All of which makes you really regret that Detroit couldn’t find a few spare ounces of energy Sunday. Stealing Game 1 would have immediately tipped this series the Pistons’ way. But hey. You get outrebounded nearly 2-to-1 and you go to the free throw line once for every 2.5 trips by your opponents — well, even rested teams will have trouble with that.

Tuesday, of course, is another day. Not necessarily better, but different.
“We will win this series,” Aguirre said in the postgame locker room. “We get a little more rest, play a little more aggressively, we’ll cause some damage.”

Ah, yes. Confidence. It is the mark of the Pistons.

Or is it the Bulls?

I keep getting those two mixed up.

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