CHICAGO — I am going to be optimistic and say that was as bad as the Pistons will play this season, because if they play any worse, their season will be history.

How awful was that first half Monday? How much Maalox you got? Here was Bill Laimbeer, on his Lost Weekend, doing little more than taking up space. Here was James Edwards, treating free throws like a firing squad, and John Salley collecting fouls like berries. Here were the Chicago Bulls, embarrassing the Pistons at their own game, with a defense that was glove- tight, stealing and blocking and scoring until Detroit had to turn to William Bedford to make things happen.

William Bedford?

“Hey,” Chuck Daly would bark after this defeat, “I sure wasn’t happy with the other guys out there.”

Can you blame him? You wanted to take the Pistons and smack them on their mittens. You wanted to tell them, “Come on now. You’re old enough to know better than this.” Here they were, coming off a playoff loss, telling everybody how focused they would be in the next game, they always are — and then out they come Monday as if they forgot to take their Walkmans off. Fellas. Wake up. I am not used to criticizing you this strongly. Then again, you don’t usually provide this kind of ammunition.

“How does something like this happen, after you all said your concentration would be better?” someone asked Joe Dumars in the suddenly hard-edged Detroit locker room, after the Pistons were slashed by the Bulls, 108-101, tying the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece.

“It’s a good question,” he said. “And I wish I could give you a long, thoughtful answer. But I can’t.”

All right then. Let me try. The answer lies on Saturday, when no Piston seemed concerned that the Bulls had won a game. The answer lies on Sunday, when the Pistons said they needed only to play better to win. The answer lies on Monday, when the Pistons came to the arena relaxed and sure of themselves. The answer lies in attitude, hunger, concentration.

And the answer lies in the past.

Go back to when Boston was the perennial conference champion, and Detroit was the hungry challenger. Everyone, including the Celtics, figured their experience would always win it; it always had. But season by season, game by game, the Pistons crept up their backs, until finally, one year, they strangled them.

You want to know the scariest thing about the Bulls’ success on Monday?

They looked like the Pistons.

“It’s been a long time since we had that type of game against Detroit,” said a smiling Michael Jordan, who stuck in the knife once again with 42 points and tenacious defense. “Today we played the whole game with intensity. Our defense was the best it’s been. We showed maturity, we showed poise, we showed concentration.”

In other words, all the things the Pistons lacked. Which is why Detroit looked anemic for the first 24 minutes, and why, at one point, the Pistons had twice as many turnovers as baskets, and why Salley picked up two fouls in eight seconds, which is fast, even for him, and why Mark Aguirre played all of nine minutes, in which he 1) turned the ball over, 2) had a shot blocked, 3) drew an offensive foul, 4) turned the ball over, 5) took a seat and did not return until the game’s final seconds.

Was that really the Pistons, missing all those inside shots, going more than eight minutes without a field goal, stepping on inbounds lines and violating the 24-second clock and having to rely on, gulp, Dennis Rodman’s free throws to keep them even remotely close? Was that really them trailing by 16 at halftime and thankful it was that close?

Oh, sure, they came out and played a gritty third quarter. And yes, they cut the lead to three. But that quarter mostly resembled excellence because the previous two were so lopsided.

The fact is, the Bulls — not the Pistons — were the defensive gems on this day. And through that defense, and Jordan’s basket-per-minute in the fourth quarter, they maintained the poise to keep the lead and win. Detroit is a better team than Chicago, and by that I mean it has better talent and more experience and so it is expected to win. But expectations do not put the ball in the basket.

“Sometimes,” Isiah Thomas said, showing a wise slice of philosophy, “the tables get turned.”

OK. Having said all that, let me now say this: I still believe the Pistons will win this series. You can’t lose your pride over a weekend, no matter how big the city is. “Maybe we’ve had things too easy,” Daly mused. “Our club hasn’t been backed against the wall all year. . . . Every team wants what we have. We own the title. It’s up to us to decide how badly we want to keep it.”

This was the first time the Pistons lost two playoff games in a row since 1988. After a while you go on autopilot, even when you swear you won’t. You figure the needed improvement will just click in automatically. But it doesn’t happen that way. You have to bring it, unpack it, put it on and wear it proudly. Every game.

The guilty parties Monday know who they are. Laimbeer acted as if he couldn’t believe his zero-point performance on Saturday, then came out Monday and scored a whopping four points.

“I have no comment,” he said after the game, which pretty much matched his statistics.

And Edwards? Where did he go? And why are free throws suddenly such a challenge? Three of eight? Six of 19 for the series? Whoa. Did somebody move the line? His worst offense, however, came in the third quarter when John Paxson, a foot shorter than Edwards, went past him one-on-one for an easy lay-up. Edwards swiped at him meekly, drew a foul and was taken out of the game shortly thereafter, missing the Pistons’ comeback attempt over the next 10 minutes.

“The funny thing,” Vinnie Johnson said, “last year, if we made a run at them like we did in the second half, they would have collapsed.”

Uh-huh. But this is not last year. And the sooner the Pistons realize that, the better off they will be. At one point Monday, as Detroit tried to come back, Thomas stole the ball and headed downcourt, but burly Ed Nealy grabbed him from behind and held him like a bear as the ball rolled away.

It was an unsettling picture, big bad Chicago holding famous Detroit hostage. The worst should be behind them. They have the tools to win. But if the Pistons continue thinking they can’t lose their crown to the Bulls, cover your eyes. They just might.

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