CHICAGO — He was leading them all, his teammates, the fans, even the referees, marching them like a cheering army toward the end of his personal rainbow. Michael Jordan was taking over the game. Bank shot, good! Lay-up, good! Jump shot, good! “Here I am,” he seemed to say to the Pistons’ defenders, “try and stop me.”
Nothing would ruin his magical finish. Logic fell at his feet; how can one man beat five? Gravity fell at his feet: How can one man stay up there so long? Even fair play fell at his feet, as the referees made two awful calls that gave Chicago the ball twice in the final 28 seconds. What were they, hypnotized? By one man?
Why not? Everyone else seemed to be. All that remained inside the thunderous Chicago Stadium was a crescendo: With nine seconds left, Jordan raced across the key, drove, leaped, twisted in midair toward the basket and, with three Pistons up there with him, he kissed the ball off the glass and through the net for a two-point victory. Miracle complete.
“What was that last play called?” someone asked Chicago coach Doug Collins, after the Bulls stunned the Pistons, 99-97, Saturday to take a 2-1 lead in these Eastern Conference finals. “How did you diagram that play?”
“I said, get the ball to Michael,” Collins answered, breaking into a grin,
“and everyone else get the bleep out of the way.”
Jordanized. Here was a game that threw logic to the red and black Chicago wind. Didn’t the Pistons appear to have the Bulls soundly beaten? Weren’t they leading by 14 points midway through the fourth quarter? Aren’t they the best defensive team in the league? Yes, yes, yes — and so what? It may be time to rethink our basketball arithmetic. One man is not supposed to beat five, but one man did it Saturday.
“I was energized,” a beaming Jordan said after the game, in which he made five steals, grabbed seven rebounds, hit 14 of 15 free throws and scored 46 points, including 17 of his team’s final 23. Energized? How about nuclearized? You could feel him coming the way you feel a gathering thunderstorm on a summer afternoon. From the moment Scottie Pippen hit a three-point shot to close the gap to 90-83 with 4:26 to play, your toes curled, your throat went dry, here came Mr. Jordan. Oh, he had done this to countless teams this year, but never to the Pistons, and never in a game this big. Never — until now.
It began with a banking lay-up over Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer, 91-85. Then a steal and a foul; he made both free throws, 91-87. The loudspeakers thumped out a drum beat and the home crowd was on its feet, screaming so loud that your teeth rattled. Jordan again with a streaking lay-up. Then again, challenging Dennis Rodman with a stutter step, launching a jumper, good, 95-91. Now the crowd was insane, Michael- maniacal, he owned the house and all its inhabitants. Jordan up in the air, drawing the defense like a vacuum, dishing off to John Paxson, whose shot was tipped in by Horace Grant, 95-93. Less than a minute left, Jordan off a screen, pulls up 13 feet from the basket, drills it, 97-95! Then, Pistons ball, Laimbeer tries to set a screen, Jordan cuts around it — a whistle blows. Offensive foul, Bill Laimbeer. Ball goes back . . . to Jordan.
Had it been anyone else, anywhere else, the whistle might never have blown.
“The most ridiculous call I’ve ever seen,” Detroit’s John Salley would say, and many would agree. But such was the groundswell inside this arena Saturday afternoon; it seemed as if the finish was fated to go whatever way young No. 23 wanted. A few seconds later he hit that final bank shot, and the fantasy was complete.
“It’s true, everything fell for us,” Jordan admitted afterward. “I mean, we did not play a good game for the first 41 minutes. I’d say we played a horsebleep game the first 41 minutes. And we still won. If ever a game was stolen, it was this one.”
“If I were Detroit, I’d be kicking myself real hard right now.” He needn’t have worried about that. While the Chicago press celebrated Jordan’s performance, and the networks drooled at the possibility of getting Michael and his increasingly national following into the NBA Finals against the glitzy LA Lakers, the Pistons — who, once upon a time, I think it was two weeks ago, were everybody’s choice to win the NBA crown — were suddenly angry, confused and second-guessing.
“We didn’t respond,” said an unusually upset Joe Dumars, who had to shoulder much of the load of defending Jordan. “I don’t care if he goes wild. We were leading by 10 or 11 points. All we needed to do was answer his shots.”
They did not. In fact, down the stretch, they seemed more of an audience for Jordan than an opponent. In those last six minutes, the Pistons scored just seven points. The Bulls are criticized for having only one guy to go to; the Pistons had nobody. Isiah Thomas, their captain, scored just five points all day, and down that stretch had a shot blocked and a ball stolen. Laimbeer threw up a brick and was called for that ridiculous foul. Vinnie Johnson was nailed for an offensive foul; Rodman got a loose-ball foul (with 28 seconds left, and most impartial spectators scratched their heads over that one, too). Dumars missed the final desperation heave with one second on the clock, a long shot from the top of the key that banked off glass and rim and bounced away harmlessly.
In the locker room afterward, the Pistons were sullen. Rodman refused to talk. Dumars spoke with his head down. Laimbeer was asked time and again about that final “foul.”
“It’s a screen, the way I’ve been setting them my whole career,” he said, his lips tight. “I executed it properly.”
He shook his head. What were they doing down two games to one? Hadn’t they beaten the Bulls all six times during the regular season? Yes, but this is not the regular season and Jordan, whom many are now calling the greatest player ever, has flicked up his switches and is playing in the ozone. If the league and the crowd and even the refs want to follow him like the Pied Piper, the Pistons better recognize all that as their enemy. Otherwise, they could be swept out of these playoffs and still not know what hit them. At times, in that final quarter, they seemed to be playing scared, as if they felt a tidal wave coming.
“Were even you surprised at what you did down that stretch?” someone asked the miracle man on the opposite end of the building.
“Of course I was,” he said, “I didn’t know I could make a shot like that.”
“Which one?” a reporter asked.
He just laughed. The press was at his feet, like subjects at a throne. The game was in his pocket, winking like a friend. His team — or, as some say, his supporting cast — was now just two wins from the NBA Finals. In Detroit they see the game being blinded by his pixie dust. Around here they just see him.
“We’re surprising the whole world now,” he said, leaning back, his hands behind his head, “and everybody’s paying attention.”
He smiled as if he knew a secret, and wasn’t telling a soul.
One-man team? How crucial is Michael Jordan to the success of the Chicago Bulls? Here is Jordan’s share of the Bulls’ production in various categories Saturday.
Bulls total Jordan Steals 9 5 Assists 21 5 Rebounds 29 7 Free throws 24 14 Field goals 37 16 Points 99 46 THE CLASS OF ’89 Michael Jordan has eight of the top single-game individual scoring performances in the 1989 playoffs. Chris Mullin of Golden State and Karl Malone of Utah have the others. PLAYER PTS
Michael Jordan 50
Michael Jordan 47
Michael Jordan 46
Michael Jordan 44
Michael Jordan 44
Chris Mullin 41
Michael Jordan 40
Michael Jordan 40
Michael Jordan 38
Karl Malone 37
Chris Mullin 37 FLYING THROUGH THE PLAYOFFS Michael Jordan has carried the Bulls to a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. Here are his game-by-game playoff statistics: GAME OPPONENT W-L FG FT REB AST PTS
1 Cleveland W 12-21 7-8 5 11 31
2 Cleveland L 10-22 10-10 5 10 30
3 Cleveland W 18-34 7-9 7 10 44
4 Cleveland L 14-28 22-27 3 4 50
5 Cleveland W 17-32 9-13 9 6 44
1 New York W 11-17 11-11 10 12 34
2 New York L 7-17 1-4 8 3 15
3 New York W 14-25 11-13 15 9 40
4 New York W 12-18 23-28 11 6 47
5 New York L 13-30 11-15 8 10 38 6 New York W 14-22 11-12 5 10 40
1 Detroit W 10-29 10-13 11 4 32
2 Detroit L 9-20 9-11 4 4 27
3 Detroit W 16-26 14-15 7 5 46
Averages .519 .825 7.7 7.4 37.0 CUTLINE Michael Jordan directs his teammates downcourt late in Saturday’s game. Piston Isiah Thomas (top) tries to steal the ball from Michael Jordan during the second quarter.