The faces said it all: Mark Aguirre in a primal scream. Chuck Daly hollering with his eyes squeezed shut. John Salley in monster grimace, rising above the crowd, the emperor of the air, grabbing the basketball and squeezing it until it seemed sure to pop.
“Ours!” they all seemed to be yelling. The ball is ours. The game is ours. This battle in this head-knocking war is ours. There may be a cloud awaiting in Chicago, but you win these championships one game at a time, and for this game, this night, possession was nine-tenths of the victory.
“I think we have gotten the kinks out,” said Mark Aguirre, in a dead serious tone, after his red-hot shooting helped spark Detroit past Chicago Wednesday, 97-83, to win Game 5 of these Eastern Conference Finals. “What you saw tonight was the Detroit Pistons.”
Particularly those who had been deemed missing over the weekend. Aguirre, who played only nine minutes on Game 4, did yeoman duty in Game 5, dropping eight of 10 shots for 19 points, most in the fourth quarter. Bill Laimbeer, woeful in Chicago, rediscovered his shooting and grabbed seven rebounds, to boot. Salley, foul plagued in previous games, played the most effective eight-point game I have ever seen, grabbing 10 rebounds and making each one of them look like an sea serpent rising from the water to catch a bird.
The Detroit Pistons? The old Pistons? It sure looked like them in the fourth quarter when, in a delightfully thunderous roar from the crowd, they spun the vise on the Bulls and watched them turn blue. Every shot was met with two hands up. Every rebound was challenged with full torsos. Every pass to Michael Jordan brought a calvary of defenders, all that was missing was the trumpets. Mr. Wonderful was held to 22 points, his series low. It didn’t matter how many lucky bounces might go over Pistons’ heads this time. Chicago got another shot? The Pistons just challenged that one, knives in their teeth, ready to rumble. “We were not going to let them score,” Aguirre said.
The game had a hard edge from start to finish, and for good reason. The Pistons had taken a blow broadside in Chicago. And they wore the scars. Joe Dumars had a cut inside his upper lip the size of a pea, suffered in Game 4. He could feel it on every play, the blood dripping onto his tongue. Dennis Rodman had a sore ankle from that game, too. He had slept at the Palace Monday, undergoing treatment. He felt it Wednesday on every run downcourt, the throb, the swelling.
James Edwards had a cut above his eye. He was pressing gauze onto it to stop the bleeding. Laimbeer had a gash in his pride, his shooting touch having left him ineffective. Nobody was forgetting. Nobody could. Hard edge? You bet. For the first time since winning the NBA crown last June, the Pistons
were backed into a corner. This is how they responded:
“We are a competitive team,” said Daly afterward, alluding perhaps to the fact that Thomas sat for most of the third and all of the fourth quarter, and the Pistons still won. “We have to be to win the title. We won’t settle for anything less.”
Low key? Of course. The Pistons have to be low key about this. They should. Any team that has already won an NBA championship cannot get too excited by winning one game in a conference series. And that’s fine. The excitement can be left to the fans. The Pistons were happy enough to rediscover their game — and their fire.
Before the game, Vinnie Johnson had sat inside the locker room and talked of the moment. “It’s time for the men to step up and be counted,” he said.
“Not everybody here has been committed to playing his best. I don’t care what anybody says, we’re just not as hungry as last year. We don’t go out on the floor hungry to start the game.
“I swear, man, if we had been ahead 14 points in Chicago last year (as they were in Game 3) there’s no way they would have come back on us. No way. .
“We don’t just have to win tonight. We have to win and send a message.”
“What’s the message?” he was asked.
Well. It was not quite that. You wonder if it can be anymore. The Bulls are an improved team, not just from a talent perspective. In fact, talent is only a small part of it. The difference between this Chicago group and last year’s is confidence, a swagger, a quiet calm. It is the difference between the Pistons of 1987 and the Pistons of 1988. It is a growing thing, twice as hard to kill once you feed it. And the Pistons fed it plenty over the weekend.
But down the stretch, the Pistons proved their mettle. Better to do it that way, giving the Bulls something to think about for the next 48 hours. The heat is on them now. They must beat the Pistons two in a row to reach the finals, and though they have accomplished that in Chicago, they have not done it with a game in Detroit.
Until the Bulls win a game here, on Detroit’s floor, they still trail the Pistons in the all-important mental race. And the Detroit message, at least the one sent on Wednesday night, was what’s yours may be yours, but what’s ours is ours.
“Do you think Michael Jordan is wearing down?” a reported asked Dumars after the game.
“I hope so,” he answered quickly.
“Nuh-uh,” said Dumars.
On we go.