CHICAGO — Long after he fired the shot that sank Detroit Saturday afternoon, Michael Jordan sat by his locker, glanced around the empty room and contemplated the enemy.
“They don’t have that go-to guy right now,” he said of the Pistons, a team his Bulls suddenly lead, 2-1, in the Eastern Conference finals. “It used to be Adrian Dantley. We could never stop him. If they needed a basket at the end, they could go to him in isolation and he’d get a shot or a foul.
“I was real happy when they traded Dantley for Mark Aguirre. It’s a lot easier for us now.”
Makes you think, doesn’t it? Everyone knows whom Chicago is going to when the game is on the line — and the rest of the time, too. Michael. Always Michael. But let’s be honest here. Pretend we don’t care who wins, pretend we don’t have a drawer full of Bad Boys T-shirts up in the bedroom. With the Pistons’ offense suddenly squirming like a cat caught under a blanket, ask this question:
Whom do they go to now in the clutch?
Isiah Thomas is the reflex name. The captain. The man most capable of miracles. And in seasons past, and even as late as a month ago, he would probably be the best answer. But as of late, the way he has performed
(shooting 36.5 percent in the playoffs), is he the best guy? There have been times when he has forced shots and times when he has simply been off-target.
“It’s difficult to figure out,” said Chuck Daly before Sunday’s workout.
“He has not attacked offensively the way we’ve wanted him to. He did it in Game 2 but not in Games 1 or 3. He only took eight shots Saturday. Why? I can’t answer that. I don’t know.”
Isiah is a wonderful player, but lately he looks out-of-sync — particularly his shooting. His broken left hand is supposedly healed, but Saturday he was blocked several times, scored just five points, and Jordan outplayed him offensively and defensively. Can that really be right? Just 36.5 percent for the playoffs — and that’s counting Boston and Milwaukee? Not to take away from his past accomplishments, but these past few weeks, Isiah has been very mortal.
“It’s not a problem,” Thomas said, shrugging, when asked Sunday. “We have a number of guys to go to in the clutch.” Every candidate has a weakness
All right. Let’s look at them. Isiah’s backcourt mate, Joe Dumars, might normally be a logical choice for hero. Cool. Unflappable. Good shooter. Except suddenly, Joey’s shooting touch has deserted him. He was a mere 5-for-16 in the Game 1 collapse, 5-for-13 in Game 2 and just 3-for-8 in Game 3. He took the final shot Saturday and, fittingly, it hit the glass, the rim, and bounced away. Besides, Dumars’ strength has been his steady offense throughout the game, but not always at the buzzer. (In Game 6 of the NBA Finals last year, he had the winner in his hands, but put it too hard off the glass.)
How about Vinnie Johnson, the third guard in the mix? Well, first of all, he has to be in the game. If he is, and he is hot, the Pistons will try to work it to him. But Vinnie is a streak shooter, and you can only pray his streak is in mid- flame. So far in this series against Chicago, he is sinking about one of every three shots.
Where there’s no smoke, there’s no fire.
Many teams go to their center in the clutch. But again, let’s be painfully honest. Bill Laimbeer shoots from outside, so he’s not going to draw a foul like other post-up centers; he must sink his shot or die. “I like to think I’m one of the guys we go to,” he said Sunday. But privately, some feel Laimbeer is not the most clutch of players — that he is good down the stretch, even into the final minutes, but for last- second heroics, he will not be the one to deliver. Shooting confidence down
Which leaves the forwards. Again, take your pick. Rick Mahorn is not there for offense; many of his points come off rebounds and follow-ups. Dennis Rodman and John Salley? The way Daly sometimes buries his head when they play, it seems unlikely they are reliable enough for the last shot.
That leaves Aguirre, the man Dantley was traded for. “He can’t do what A.D. did,” Jordan claimed, “not at the end.” The numbers bear him out: Aguirre does most of his scoring in the first half. Often he is not even in the lineup for the final seconds. And his game here is more shooting and passing then driving and drawing the foul.
Now, having said this, let me add that I still believe the Pistons will win this series. They have that much talent, especially on defense. And, maybe they’ll win today’s Game 4 with a last-second shot, and everything will be fine. But the point is, their overall shooting confidence is down right now, individually and collectively, and when they need an offensive hero — as they did in the final six minutes Saturday — they are not finding him.
Chicago may feel very comfortable watching the clock tick away as long as Jordan has the ball. But the Pistons? They’d just as soon avoid a last-second miracle call. Their miracles, right now, are hitting the rim. CUTLINE: Vinnie Johnson