Part VIII: MJ's Bulls and Pistons go for a third round, page 2
There was only the top to reach for Michael Jordan and the 1989-90 Bulls, and that meant getting past the Detroit Pistons. With Phil Jackson at the helm, Chicago again fell to Detroit in seven games of the Eastern Conference Finals. The next season had to
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The Bulls split in Florida coming out of the All-Star break, and then won nine straight and then 16 of 19 heading into Cleveland March 28.
It was a dark and stormy night;
The rain fell in torrents...
I really always wanted to write that. It's actually considered the most maligned and mocked of phrases perhaps ever. It written by 19th century English novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton. He also coined, "The pen is mightier than the sword," though much of my early literature comes from Charles Shultz and Snoopy, who often used the "dark and stormy night" introduction.
Ah, but I digress. I remember well that night of March 28, 1990. The Bulls were in the old Richfield Coliseum preparing for the Cavs and I remember Jordan in the locker room before the game working with Pippen and showing him how to drive, lean into a defender and, in effect, fake contact to draw foul calls. Back in those older buildings, there was no back rooms and trainer's room to be away from media, and Jordan was in the locker room demonstrating for Pippen. Pippen would try, but look awkward doing it.
That night Jordan would shoot 23 free throws and make 21 on the way to his biggest scoring game ever with 69 points in an overtime win over the Cavs. Poor Cavs. Jordan also had 18 rebounds, six assists and four steals in just the start of a heck of a week.
Jordan had scored 43 points against the Kings a few days before and after the 69 points against the Cavs, Jordan had 49 points and 12 rebounds the next game in an overtime win over the Knicks and then 47 points the following game in a win over Miami, a three game average of 55 per game and over six games in that stretch an average of 46.2 per game. Adding the next three games, which included 43 in a win at Dallas, Jordan averaged 43 points for those nine games from March 23 through April 7 as the Bulls were 8-1.
The Bulls finished with a 55-27 record, the second best regular season mark in franchise history. Jordan led the NBA in scoring again at 33.6. The Bulls were a franchise best 36-5 at home with 15 straight wins at home in midseason.
But everyone knew what was inevitable: The Pistons.
Were the Bulls up to the challenge yet?
The first round against Milwaukee went pretty much as expected as the Bulls won in four games. The series was notable for the rugged play. The increased penalties for aggressive play with suspensions and fines actually traces back to that series with several scrapes involving, of all players, Will Perdue.
The Bulls won the first two at home as Jordan had 38 points and 36 points. The Bucks won back in Milwaukee, despite 48 points from Jordan, and the Bulls closed it out easily in a blowout as Jordan rested down the stretch.
The next step was the 76ers with Charles Barkley talking a lot. They'd picked up Bad Boy Rick Mahorn and had Jordan's buddy whom he wanted drafted for Brad Sellers, Johnny Dawkins.
This had been the season the Bulls had three No. 1 picks, an amazing bounty from clever deals by GM Krause in the past. But it was one of the poorest drafts of the decade with Pervis Ellison the No. 1 overall pick. With No. 6, the Bulls selected Stacey King, and added B.J. Armstrong and Jeff Sanders later in the first round. King would have his best season of his five with the Bulls, averaging 8.9 points. Though he never could replace Horace Grant and later was traded for Luc Longley in 1994.
Jordan had an amazing series against the 76ers, averaging 43 points per game as he scored 39 and 45 as the Bulls took a 2-0 lead at home. One of my favorite playoff games ever was the Game 3 Bulls loss in Philadelphia. It was a wild night with Phil Jackson getting into a major dispute on the bench with Grant and the Bulls being blown out... for the first 38 minutes.
With 10 minutes left, the Bulls trailed 93-69. And then came Jordan.
I'd seen these determined explosions before when no one could stop him. No matter what a team tried, Jordan was scoring, and he simply was taking on the 76ers on his own. It would have been easy to give up with what looked like a 2-1 series lead. Maybe the Bulls should have given up and rested for Game 4. But Jordan always believed he could do something and turn a game around, and players became emboldened with Jordan. Anything seemed possible when you didn't give in to defeat.
Jordan scored 24 points in the last 10 minutes, cutting the lead to three points before the 76ers held on for the win. You knew then the series was over for the 76ers. There was no way the 76ers could put the Bulls and Jordan away, and the next game the 76ers led by 14 after halftime until Jordan scored 18 points in the final period to finish with 45 points and 11 assists as the Bulls won by double digits.
Scottie Pippen's father had died and Pippen left the team going into Game 5. It wasn't clear he'd be back. So Jordan stepped in again for Game 5 with 37 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in a blowout win for the Bulls. And then it was on to the expected date with fate in Detroit.
The Pistons, who finished four games ahead of the Bulls that season to get home court, won the first two games easily and it became just too much for Jordan as he was held to 20 points by the swarming Pistons in Game 2. Jordan threw a rare fit at halftime, slamming a water cooler and stalking onto the bus after the game, refusing to speak with teammates or the media. There was three off days until Game 3, and Jordan refused to talk to any of his teammates. He refused to speak with reporters. I remember Jordan's dad, James, stopping by the reporters to explain that Jordan wasn't mad at the media, that he was frustrated and just wanted his teammates to stand up to the Pistons tactics.
His teammates did and the Bulls won Game 3 by 107-102 and Game 4 by 108-101. Jordan had 47 and 42 points, respectively, and coach Phil Jackson understood. He told the team they had to get the score above 100 and they'd win. I also loved Phil's explanation, as relayed by a few players, that the Bulls actually had the edge in home court because the Bulls had four chances to win a game in Detroit while the Pistons had just three chances to win in Chicago. Well, Phil did make them think.
The Pistons went back home and ground out a 97-83 win and then back to Chicago the teams went with the Bulls winning 109-91. The Bulls were too young and too fast for the Pistons now, but still not tough enough.
Mike, which is what they called Jordan when he arrived at college, was ready for Game 7 in the Palace. No one else was.
Scottie Pippen came down with a migraine headache, the famous picture of him sitting on the bench with a towel over his head. Horace Grant was three-of-17 from the field. Craig Hodges, a star in Game 6 with four threes, was two-of-12. Bill Cartwright had six points. Pippen played more than 40 minutes, but was one of 10. Jordan did what he could, and the Bulls actually led early in the second quarter before giving way. Jordan finished with 31 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. And one big burning desire to beat the Pistons.
The next season had to be it after three years of disappointment. Jordan said afterward you don't get many chances and at some point you move ahead or fall back. The Bulls were on that precipice.