LIKE OLD TIMES, EXCEPT FOR ENDING

In the locker room before the game, Rick Mahorn sat in the corner, holding a cup of coffee, the old evil smile creasing his face. On the large TV screen, silent footage flashed of the night’s opponent, the Chicago Bulls. Mahorn rolled his eyes, sipped from his cup, smiled again. “I really want to beat those guys,” he said.

It all felt very familiar, Mahorn, an original Bad Boy, lusting for a victory over the Bulls, the Palace parking lot filled to the brim, TV and radio crews so numerous a Japanese unit had to sit halfway up the lower level. Detroit’s richest and gaudiest fans paraded across the Palace floor, jewelry gleaming in the bright lights, bleached blonds posing in minks and tight leather pants, men in Italian sweaters, their heads bopping to the rock music. These are always spirited nights at the Palace, which feels best when it showers in nostalgia, years when the Pistons were on top and the Bulls were just another beast to be eaten.

That was a long time ago.

They are trying to get back.

Not there yet. The Pistons came into the night undefeated on the young season, four wins in their pockets, same as the Bulls, and a lot of folks were giddy with excitement. But when the night was over, the large gap between the two franchises was as stark as a crater. The Pistons were outrebounded, outhustled, outshot and outfinessed — and this was far from a top night by the Chicago gang. The game was introduced to a national TV audience by Michael Buffer, the ring announcer who got famous from a single sentence:
“Let’s get ready to RUMMMBLLLLLE!”

And afterwards, Doug Collins would say, “That was appropriate. This was like a heavyweight fight. They looked into our eyes, we were intimidated, and they had us beaten before the first jump.”

Not there yet.

Not enough depth

In the locker room after the loss, Grant Hill sat hunched over, hands on his knees. The stat sheet was by his feet. Someone asked if he wanted the stats thrown away,

“Yes,” he said, then added, “please.”

Oh, the Pistons tried. Joe Dumars threw in 12 points in the first 12 minutes, trying to jump-start his squad. Hill went one-on-one with Toni Kukoc and burned him with jump shots. But the scoring and the skill trails off quickly after those two, and the Pistons were left with their defensively inclined forwards clanging shots from close range, while rebounds soared over their guards’ heads.

There was a stretch in the third quarter where the Bulls took five shots, missed every one and got every rebound. It was as if they were playing a beach volleyball game with the Pistons buried in the sand. It was garbage time halfway through the fourth quarter, and fans filed out quickly, finishing their beers as they walked to the parking lot.

So Detroit lost, by 18 points — “I think we lost our opener to the Bulls last year by 20,” Hill said, sardonically, “so we’re making progress” — but to spend any more time on the result is foolish.

These Pistons cannot measure themselves by the Chicago Bulls. Only the Bulls can measure themselves by the Chicago Bulls. This is a team not just in a different league but in a different solar system. It’s not an accident that Michael Jordan’s movie takes place in outer space.

The Pistons are a developing team that needs to win the games it should win, steal a few it’s not supposed to, and hope for a good showing against the elite. You want to believe you can and will win every game — but the roster doesn’t hold that dream. You do what you can.

Not there yet.

Too much depth

Over in the Bulls’ locker room, Dennis Rodman sat by a wooden locker and was grilled about his old team. In his red hair, tattoos and Landing Strip T-shirt, he offered this analysis:

“They’re like ‘Grant Hill, Grant Hill, Grant Hill, do something for us, Grant!’ We’re not like that. We got so many guys who can do it, we don’t look to any one player. We don’t have to.”

Now, granted, Dennis’ comments are always tinged with anger when he talks about the Pistons, but he’s right about one thing. The Bulls can spread the glory. You only needed to watch the first quarter Friday night. Jordan didn’t score a point. He even passed up shots in favor of passes.

And then, next thing you knew, he banged three straight shots in 80 seconds.

I asked him about this afterwards, and he grinned as if someone had blurted out a secret.

“I did that on purpose,” he admitted. “I knew Doug would start by double-teaming me. So I came out looking to pass, to stretch their defense. Then, once I felt it was stretched, I attacked.”

Are you listening to that? It’s like talking to a general. Very few players can make the strategy and execute it. Jordan can. It is why you can’t compare this team to any other.

And why the Pistons shouldn’t worry about this loss any longer than it takes to read this column. The games that matter are Tuesday against the Bullets and Wednesday against the Nuggets. The Pistons’ first four wins were impressive, and should not be diminished because the Big Red Giant came to town and stomped them.

Halfway through the game, Jordan and Hill shared a joke.

“I asked him for some of his cologne,” Hill said, “and he asked me for one of my candy bars.”

That stuff, they have in common. The basketball part will have to wait. Not there yet. But working on it.

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