CHICAGO — When the buzzer sounded this time, there were no leaps of joy, no screams, no hollers. They walked off the court like professionals, bruised, exhausted, breathing hard, yes, but still standing and maybe even . . . grinning. They won the game. They won the series. Their date with destiny was out in the parking lot, lipstick on and the motor running.

Good night, Chicago.

Good morning, LA.

“This is over, it’s already over,” said a tired but happy Isiah Thomas, just moments after leading the Pistons to a 103-94 victory over Chicago to capture the Eastern Conference crown. “It’s time to start thinking about the Lakers.”

Can you blame him for wanting to forget it so fast? Here, in Game 6 of this slugfest series, was the battle Chicago needed for its survival and Detroit needed for its destiny. And in a hell-house of Chicago noise, destiny won.

It was Thomas stealing the ball from Craig Hodges and dropping a lay-up, then dropping a jumper, then another. It was Bill Laimbeer, as popular in Chicago as diaper rash, standing at the line as the crowd thundered “LAIMBEER S—S!” and calmly sinking two free throws. It was James Edwards spinning inside and canning a jumper, and Dennis Rodman playing rebounding machine.

And in the closing seconds it was the brilliant Michael Jordan walking off the court, defeated, finally, his tornado ended, and he stopped to shake hands

with Joe Dumars, his defender.

“Bring it back to the East, baby,” he said.

“Michael, see you next year,” sighed Dumars. “And I won’t miss you.”

Good night, Chicago.

Good morning, LA. Everybody take a deep breath and . . . exhale. Wow. How long had this series been going on? Six games? Wasn’t it more like six years? “Basketball” was a polite word for this Midwestern war; more often it resembled slam dancing, keep-away, or a good old-fashioned game of tag. Here were the Bulls with Jordan, the most explosive player on the planet, and here were the Pistons trying to drape a blanket over his head and suffocate him. So caught up were both sides in that singular drama, that often the remaining sport was little more than shots thudding off the glass.

“It wasn’t a pretty series,” Vinnie Johnson admitted in the locker room afterwards. “I think a lot of people expected us to beat the Bulls in four or five games. But they beat Cleveland and New York — both without home-court advantage. And with a guy like Jordan on their team, they can do a lot of things. Did you see that look on his face tonight?”

“What goes through your mind when he gets that look?” someone asked.

Johnson looked right. He looked left. “Help!” he said.

And in the end, that would be what won it for Detroit. Help. Defensive help. Two and three men swarming in on Jordan like radar. Dumars. Johnson. Rodman. On the blackboard before Friday’s game, Chuck Daly had written:
“Remember The Jordan Rule.” Someone asked what the rule was.

“Whenever he goes to the bathroom,” Daly said, deadpan, “we all go with him.”

Good night, Chicago.

Oh, Jordan certainly did his best to part the sea and split the sky and make rain fall on the desert. He was awesome much of the game Friday, playing hurt, still driving and dishing. He scored 32 points and had 13 assists, including a pair of lay-ups and two feeds to John Paxson for three-point baskets that brought the Bulls to within two points, 81-79. But in the end he was proven mortal. He even missed several key free throws down the stretch.

And meanwhile, Isiah was on fire. Directing the show. Calm. No worries. He finished with 33 points.

“How does it feel to win it?” someone asked the captain.

“Well it’s like going in a candy store,” he said smiling, “and you want a Snickers bar. But they say they don’t have a Snickers bar, you can have something else. But you don’t want something else. You want the Snickers bar. This is nice, but we want an NBA championship. We don’t have that yet.”

He paused on the word “yet.”

Good morning, LA. How different from last year, when the Pistons beat the Celtics and celebrated like Christmas. Eastern Conference champions! How sweet. The Finals? They got to go to the Finals as well? What a bonus!

This time so many observers had jumped on the Detroit bandwagon that it almost sunk from the weight. The closer the Pistons got to the final round, the more labored their movement seemed, like the nightmare that has you running in slow motion. Got . . . to . . . get . . . there . . . got . . . to . . . get . . . there.

But a lesson earned is a lesson learned. The Pistons know too well the danger of letting a team off the hook, having done so to the Lakers last year. So they weathered Chicago’s storms. When the Bulls roared ahead to a 12-point lead in the first period, the Pistons stuck with their defense, and they came back, Isiah leading the way with jumpers. The 12-point lead was down to two by the end of the period.

And then Detroit went to the skills that got it here. Tenacious defense — stripping the ball, poking it away. Dominant rebounding — with Rodman (pulled muscle in his back, no less) playing patty-cake over two and three Bulls. And a bench as deep as a Susan Sontag novel.

“Now that’s Detroit” they said back home.

Good night, Chicago. Wow. The NBA Finals. Back at last to the freshness of the unknown. After 82 regular-season pit stops, countless airports and countless hotel rooms, meaningless games against San Antonio and the LA Clippers, never-ending interviews where the questions are the same, finally, after all that, the Pistons have returned to something that is still a challenge.

“We were expected to win this,” Dumars said. “We were expected to do everything up to this point. Now it’s really up to us.”

And who knows? The sluggish Chicago series may be just what the doctor ordered. The Lakers may have cruised to the finals without a single defeat, but some teams like smooth waters, others like choppy waves, and then there are the Pistons, who seem born for the wild surf. Give them excitement. Give them a challenge. Tell them they can’t do something and stick 19,000 screaming mad fans in an arena to prove it.

Then get out of the way. Like Friday night.

A word here for Jordan: incredible. Take a bow, Michael. The effort he displayed would have made Atlas proud. There were times Friday when he single-handedly played all five Detroit players: he was everywhere, driving the lane, shooting deadeye, stripping Pistons of the ball. If anything comes out of this series, it is that Michael Jordan can beat any player in the league right now. He just can’t beat them all.

But now we are back to where we left off, one year and so many fireworks ago. The purple and gold against the red, white and blue. Magic against Isiah, Laimbeer against Kareem, Showtown against Motown in a battle that, unlike most movies made out there, is good enough to warrant a sequel. The Pistons’ challenges this season have been long and short, Eastern and Midwestern. They are all dead now. Only the West remains.

Good night, Chicago.

Good morning, LA.

First down and glory to go. CUTLINE Piston forward Mark Aguirre thrusts his fist into the air during the Pistons’ 103-94 victory over the Chicago Bulls Friday. Aguirre scored 10 points as Detroit won the Eastern Conference championship series, four games to two. Game coverage starts on Page 1C.

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