UGLY, BUT PISTONS PLAY BY RULESGAME 1? IT’S A DUD, EXCEPT FOR DUMARS

That sound — clank! — you heard — whompf! — from inside — thud! — the Palace — whifff! — was, believe it or not, the NBA Eastern Conference finals. At least that’s what they call it in May. In February it’s just a game where a lot of people miss their shots.

Ah, well. These things happen. Like getting a rip in your pants. And besides, the Pistons won, so folks around here are happy. But because games like Sunday’s determine who goes West to play, um, somebody, for the NBA crown, coaches and writers must now come up with at least 50 complex reasons why James Edwards missed five free throws. Personally, I think it’s because he didn’t shoot very well.

“Do you realize I didn’t score a point after the first period?” Edwards asked Mark Aguirre in the locker room, after the Pistons beat the Bulls, 86-77, in Game 1.

“You’re kidding me,” Aguirre said.

“Nope,” Edwards said.

“And we still won?” Aguirre said, rolling his eyes. “Whooeee! Are we happy today or what?”

Well, it’s good to know somebody’s happy with this performance. In between the baskets, which were rare, and the technicals, which were plentiful, we had traveling, palming, balls hitting the top of the glass, more traveling. Take out Michael Jordan and Joe Dumars — who seemed to be playing on another court, anyhow — and the Pistons and Bulls shot 36 percent. For the game. Comedy, Steve Martin once said, is not pretty. Neither was this.

Let us list the Pistons’ stars.

1. Dumars.

2. Dennis Rodman.

3. Dumars.

We give Joe first place for his offense, which pulled the Pistons from the fire in the third quarter, and third place for his defense, which helped tire Jordan in the second half. Rodman gets in there for his rebounding, which was excellent. The rest of the Pistons? Well. Let’s say they were saving it for future games. I promise you, they won’t argue. Heck, they’re thrilled to have won on an off-day like this.

“Just give us one hot guy,” said Bill Laimbeer, who scored only nine points, nodding in Dumars’ direction. “One hot guy. That’s all we need.”

Unfortunately, in the Bulls’ case, that is all they have.

Which brings us to the big question, of course: How did Michael Jordan do?

Answer No. 1: He was knocked around, hurt his hip, fell on his head, wrestled with his shot.

Answer No. 2: Better than his teammates.

Then again, his teammates might have struggled with the Belgian Olympic team on Sunday. The four other Chicago starters scored 31 points combined; Jordan scored 34. And that included the entire fourth quarter, in which he sank just one basket. To be fair, Mr. Air seemed to be playing hurt. Early in the game, he came flying among Dumars, Rodman and John Salley, shot the ball and went crashing to the floor on his left hip. He came up limping.

“I think I had my legs cut from under me,” Jordan said.

“We didn’t do it,” Salley insisted. “He came in flying. There was no place to go but down. Yeah, he limped when he got up. Then he jumped 47 inches off the ground.”

Well. Such is Jordan. He did bag an incredible shot at the halftime buzzer, hanging between two defenders until gravity pulled them down, then delay-shooting a three-pointer that swished. That, however, would be the cap on his glory. An hour and a half later, the game was over, and Jordan had lost Round 1 against Dumars, who, as usual, has been handed the suit of armor and told to kill the dragon.

No problem. Not only did Dumars stick to Jordan on defense, but he exploded a la Jordan on offense. The third quarter was lovely to behold. Dumars began with a lay-up off an Isiah Thomas pass. Then another lay-up. Then a jump shot. Then another lay-up. Then four more jump shots, some of them on the run. “I started to get in that groove where you think anything you put up is going to go in,” he said. By the end of the quarter, he had scored 18 points. The Pistons had the lead for good.

“A lot of people don’t pay attention to your offense,” an ESPN reporter observed to Dumars, who finished with 27.

“I hope they continue not to pay attention,” he said.

“Why?”

“The less attention they pay, the easier it is to do it.”

Rest assured the Bulls are paying attention. Whether they can do anything about it is another matter. If Jordan’s hip pointer lingers, and John Paxson remains hobbled with his ankle injury, this series could end with the Detroit frontcourt never having to punch in. Let’s face it. Chicago’s B.J. Armstrong, a rookie and a nice guy — even if he does look as if he’s late for his Cub Scout meeting — is no match for the likes of Dumars, Thomas and Vinnie Johnson. And I don’t think the Bulls will come back Tuesday with any huge surprises. Let’s not forget, these teams have played each other 18 times in the past two seasons. They spend half the game calling out each other’s plays.

“This was the game they should have won,” allowed Thomas, who, like his teammates, remembers last year, when the Bulls stole Game 1 of this series and made it difficult the rest of the way. “We played poorly on offense, we missed open shots, which is uncharacteristic for us.”

And yet, they still came away victorious. Goes to show what defense and rebounding can do for you, even if you can’t hit the rim. The Bulls were left with their painfully familiar script — Jordan scores big, the others go flat, the game is lost — and they may now have that sinking feeling you get when you watch a bus pull away and realize it may have been the last one for the night.

The series will continue. The adjustments will be made. Before it is over, I am sure, there will be some exciting moments. The ball will actually fall through the net. As for Sunday’s game, well, maybe the best comment came from Edwards. He said: “I hope it’s out of our system.”

Here’s hoping with you, kid.

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