The Chicago Bulls—featuring Rick Adelman, Jerry Sloan and Bob Weiss, all players who are current or recent NBA head coaches—finished the regular season with a 54-28 record, good for second place in the Midwest Divison, two games ahead of the Detroit Pistons. The teams would meet in the Western Conference Semifinals.
After dropping all four regular-season contests at Chicago Stadium, Detroit shocked the Bulls in the opener, 97-88, behind 27 points from 1974 All-Star Game MVP Bob Lanier. The Bulls, however, would re-gain homecourt advantage with a win in Detroit in Game 2—at the time, the series switched after every game—and the teams would hold serve at home the remainder of the series.
With Game 7 tied, 94-94, and the clock running down, Chicago's Chet Walker hit a go-ahead, 10-footer to give the Bulls a two-point advantage. The ensuing inbounds pass by Detroit's Dave Bing was broken up, giving the Bulls a series win and the right to be swept by Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Pistons.com: Pistons-Bulls: At The Beginning
And while the 1987-88 regular season and All-Star individual accolades may have belonged to a young Michael Jordan, he had little support in his attempt to advance any further in the second round of the playoffs, where the Bulls and Pistons met for a second time.
After taking Game 1 of their series at their then-home, the Pontiac Silverdome—a building which, earlier in the year, hosted an NBA-best single-game attendance mark of 61,983; The Bulls topped the record a decade later in the Georgia Dome—Detroit gave up Game 2 at home to the Bulls. Detroit, however, found a successful formula, holding Jordan in check and forcing his teammates to beat them. They could not and Detroit won the three subsequent games to take the series 4-1.
Jordan, who averaged an NBA-high 35.0 points per game during the regular season, was limited to only 27.4 during the series with Detroit. One thing was clear: The Bulls may have been pushovers this year, but they were going to figure into Detroit's spring plans for years to come.
Pistons.com: Jordan's Bulls Meet the Bad Boys
Before the series began, Michael Jordan predicted the Bulls would defeat Detroit if only Chicago could win Game 1 on the road. That's just what the Bulls did, capturing Games 1 and 3 to take a 2-1 series lead. The Pistons, though, won the next three to advance to the Finals, where they would sweep the short-handed Lakers, who lost Magic Johnson to a hamstring pull in Game 2.
Pistons.com: Bulls Better, Pistons Best
Behind an Eastern Conference best 59-23 record—the Lakers won 63 games—Detroit again captured the Central Division title and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they, again, faced the Chicago Bulls, who won 55 regular season games.
Much like three years earlier, when the Pistons lost to Boston in seven games, the home team captured every game in this series to advance to the Finals. The loser in both cases, however, would win the rematch the following year.
The series proved to be a hard-fought battle, as were the two previous meetings between the teams. The Bulls may not have had to wait until the 1990-91 season were it not for a migraine headache that limited Scottie Pippen in Game 7 to 1-for-10 shooting and only two points in 42 minutes. In addition to Pippen, the Bulls were without a healthy John Paxson, who suffered a sprained ankle in the series.
Pistons.com: Rivaly Peaks in 1990 Conference Finals
By then, the Bulls comfortably controlled the series, three games to none, looking to sweep away their nemesis and make the first Finals appearance in Bulls franchise history. Heading in to the Playoffs, the Bulls (61-21) had wrested the Central Division title away from the Pistons and became only the ninth team in NBA history to win 60 or more games in a single season.
Chicago routed the Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills; their 21-point margin of victory in Game 4 prompting, perhaps as much as Jordan's quote above, Detroit, led by Isiah Thomas, to leave the court without so much as a congratulatory handshake.
The torch, however begrudgingly, had been passed to the younger Bulls, who would go on to three-peat twice over a span of eight seasons.