CHICAGO — By the end, he was leading them all, his teammates, the fans, even the referees, marching them like a crazed 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 minute. What were they, hypnotized? By one man?
Why not? Everyone else seemed to be. All that remained inside the thunderous Chicago Stadium was the 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.”
Here was a game that threw logic to the red and black Chicago wind. Weren’t the Pistons leading by 13 with 6:18 to play? Aren’t they the best defensive team in the league? Didn’t they appear to have the Bulls soundly beaten? 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 — who scored 17 of his team’s final 23 points — did it Saturday.
“I was energized,” a beaming Jordan said after the game, in which he scored 46 points, made five steals, grabbed seven rebounds, and hit 14 of 15 free throws. 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, Detroit, 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 in the NBA, but never to the Pistons, and never in a game this big. Never — until now.
It began with a banking layup 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, 12 feet from the basket, drills it, good, 97-95! Then, Pistons ball, Bill 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 minutes 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 glizty 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, in those last six minutes, the Pistons scored just seven points. They were the polar opposite of Chicago. The Bulls are criticized for only having 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, so was Dennis Rodman (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 afterwards, 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 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 you surprised at what you did down that stretch?” someone asked Jordan 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. He had led the Bulls to yet another spectacular finish, another one-man show, another argument for his legend. He had taken on playoff pressure, the best defense in the league, and a 14-point deficit and stepped on it all. 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 was enjoying every second.
CUTLINE: Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman collide in midair. Mark Aquirre is in the background.