Part VIII: MJ's Bulls and Pistons go for a third round
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
Standing in the way of Michael Jordan and the 1989-90 Bulls once again were Joe Dumars and the Detroit Pistons. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
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After the great and surprising playoff run of 1989, there was only the top to reach for Michael Jordan and the Bulls, and that meant getting past the Detroit Pistons.
It was becoming the Bulls' and Jordan's grail. Jordan was concerned his teammates weren't tough enough, and despite a concerted effort to pass the ball and involve them more, Jordan was ambivalent because he believed he still had to produce big scoring numbers, especially with the outcome of the game still to be decided.
So, in some respects, the season became a marathon or sorts, a forced march to the top of the mountain. Jordan had to prepare himself for that, and he would from Day 1 of the 1989-90 season.
Here's something you never see anymore: Dominance in the preseason. The games don't mean anything and the players now, even the top ones, don't even participate in all the exhibition games, many in small cities that don't have NBA teams in the league's emphasis on spreading the game.
In the first exhibition game of the 1989-90 season, Jordan played 30 minutes and scored 29 points along with eight rebounds and six assists. Jordan always understood there was a responsibility of being Michael Jordan. You always had to be on, because the spotlight always was on you. In the Bulls’ final exhibition in an 8-0 preseason, Jordan scored 37 points in 29 minutes along with nine assists and seven rebounds. Michael came to play every game, so when people ask how are today's players different, well, that's one example.
It didn't matter the venue or the significance. Great competitors played to win every time. It's another thing that distinguished Jordan and separated him from the pack.
Like the famous, storybook gunslingers of the old West, there was always some hotshot kid wanting to make a reputation and you had to be ready. Wild Bill Hickok wasn't fast just once, and it was his last day as the fastest. There was a great story from training camp that season when a tough guy named Matt Brust was there. He wasn't going to make the team, so he decided to make a name. He was playing physically, and one day started going after Jordan, knocking him down on a drive with hard body shots as Jordan went in the air. As we know, Jordan never forgets. Later in the same practice, Jordan did his switch hands layup in another way. He drove with Brust on his right and as he got to the basket he switched the ball to his left hand and gave Brust a vicious elbow with his right. Brust was knocked out and released shortly thereafter.
The season opened at home, and like with Doug Collins, Michael made sure his new coach, Phil Jackson, got his first win quickly. Every coach Jordan played for with the Bulls won the first game Jordan played for him.
On Valentine's Day in 1990, Jordan wore No. 12 and scored 49 points in an overtime loss to the Magic.
(Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images)
The Cavs were the opening day opponent, and if everyone thought the 1989 playoff Game 5 win was an upset and a fluke, Jordan was determined to show his team was deserving.
Jordan scored 54 points in an overtime win in what was becoming an excruciating series of losses to the Bulls for the Cavs. Game 3 was the Pistons, and for all everyone dismisses the regular season and statements, Jordan knew the Bulls had to begin to build confidence against the Pistons. He had 40 points and seven assists as the Bulls beat the Pistons and Jordan followed that with 45 points the next night against expansion Minnesota as Jackson opened his career 3-1.
That was the classic what if story.
Jackson had grown despairing about getting an NBA head coaching opportunity and had tried hard to get the expansion Minnesota job. It was the closest he ever had come to getting an NBA head coaching position. But the job went to another CBA veteran, Bill Musselman, and Jackson, surprisingly, found himself elevated to Bulls coach with the stunning firing of Collins. Jackson had no idea and was in Montana for the summer when GM Krause called and said to get back to Chicago because the Bulls were firing Collins and asking Jackson to replace him. We all know about Jackson's Hall of Fame career. But what if he had gotten that Minnesota job and left? Would the Bulls have even fired Collins? Who would they have hired? What would have become of Jackson probably never coaching Michael Jordan?
Jackson was delicately trying to introduce the triangle offense without forcing it on Jordan, and the team began to struggle, losing three straight out west and falling to 10-7. Jordan then hit the Mavericks for 41 points and the Bulls were off, winning 11 of 13, one of the losses by a point in Orlando despite 52 points from Jordan. The Bulls had surprising problems with an expansion Orlando team, and later that season, on Valentine's Day in 1990, Jordan's jersey was stolen before the game and the team didn't have a No. 23. There always are many kids wearing the No. 23 in the stands, but the Bulls couldn't find anyone with the right size. So Jordan wore No. 12 that night. Jordan scored 49 points in an overtime loss.
Orlando, actually, had a hand in all the Jordan number changes. Jordan was wearing No. 45, the number his brother Larry wore when they played together in high school, when he returned from his first retirement in 1995. Orlando won the opening playoff game in the conference semifinals on a steal from Jordan by Nick Anderson. Anderson later remarked Jordan's didn't seem like No. 23. Jordan then changed back to No. 23, those three being he only numbers he wore in his NBA career.
When Orlando came into Chicago in January, Jordan made sure not to let that one get away with a 43-point effort, though the Bulls would lose to the Pistons twice in January. The Bulls headed out west again just before the All-Star break and stumbled, though Jordan put up 44 in a loss to the Spurs. Scottie Pippen joined Jordan on the All-Star team for the first time as the Bulls had two All-Stars for the first time since Reggie Theus and Artis Gilmore in 1981. The East won easily in Miami as Jordan and Charles Barkley led with 17 points each and Isiah Thomas and Jordan shared the backcourt.
The Bulls were just 28-19 coming out of the break, but they would be a different team the rest of the regular season, posting the second best record in the league to finish at 27-8....