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 waiting in Chicago, but you win these championships one game at a time, and for this game, this night, possession was nine-tenths of victory.
“I think we have gotten the kinks out,” said Aguirre, in a dead serious tone, after his hot shooting helped spark Detroit past Chicago Wednesday, 97-83, to take a 3-2 lead in the 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 in 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, as did fellow big man James Edwards. Salley, foul-plagued in previous games, played the most effective eight-point game I have ever seen, grabbing 10 rebounds and making each of them look like an sea serpent rising from the water to snatch a bird.
“They were feeling too good about themselves,” Edwards would say when this game was over. “We had to show them that we’re still the world champions, and they still have to beat us.” They did it by breaking the Chicago press. They did it by boxing out for rebounds. They did it with the bench taking over, scoring 35 points and playing as many minutes as most of the starters.
And they did it in crunch time, the fourth quarter, when, behind a delightful thunder from the sellout crowd, they twisted the vise and watched the Bulls 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. Miracle was held to 22 points, his series low. And it didn’t matter how many lucky bounces went over Pistons’ heads this time. Chicago got another shot? Detroit just challenged that one. “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 Game 4, too. He had slept at the Palace Monday, undergoing treatment. He felt it Wednesday on every run downcourt, the throb, the swelling.
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. The mood was so serious, Pistons management even forsook the juvenile electronic ball races on the giant scoreboard, in an apparent — and welcome — gesture to focus more on the game and rev up the crowd. Nice. And what better moment? For the first time since winning the NBA crown last June, the Pistons were backed into a corner. This is how they responded: Rodman dunk. Salley block. Dumars swish. Aguirre for three.
“You have to protect your home turf,” said Dumars, who made Jordan sweat on defense — obviously a key to victory in this series — by scoring 20 points, the team high. “Bad things happen when you lose at home.”
And the Pistons had enough of those. Games 3 and 4 were not so crushing as to ruin team spirit, but they did raise some questions. Before Wednesday’s game, Vinnie Johnson had sat inside the locker room and wondered about team tenacity: “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 anyone 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.
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. And now, for the second year in a row, they head to Chicago with only Game 6 standing between them and the Finals. “Remember, they’ve been in this situation before, too,” warned Dumars. True. But what they haven’t done is won a critical game at the Palace. Not yet. And until they do, they still trail the Pistons in the all-important mental race, which is largely what basketball is about at this stage. The Bulls would have to win a Game 7 in Detroit to advance, and the Detroit message, at least the one sent Wednesday night, was simple and direct: in your building, what’s yours may be yours, but around here, what’s ours is ours.
And this one was ours.
“Do you think Michael Jordan is wearing down?” a reporter asked Dumars after the game.
“I hope so.” he answered quickly.
On we go.