HIGH QUALITY VERSION:
are not afraid of the Detroit Pistons. They are not afraid of the past. And now, the Chicago Bulls are one victory away from eliminating the team that eliminated them from the playoffs the three previous years.
Taking a major step toward the NBA Finals, the Bulls defeated the Pistons, 113-107, here this afternoon at the Palace. Chicago leads the Eastern Conference Finals, 3-0, and can eliminate the Pistons by winning Game 4 here Monday afternoon.
History says that the Pistons' two-year reign as NBA champions is about to end. No team in league history has recovered from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series. And the Pistons appeared to throw everything they had at Chicago today, yet the Bulls withstood it.
"We've put the Pistons in a position that they haven't been in for a long time," said Michael Jordan, who scored 33 points for the Bulls on 11-for-19 shooting, saving 14 of them for the final quarter. He also had 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 blocks and 2 steals. "In my seven years here, we've never been to the finals, and we've never beaten this team in the playoffs. We can do both with one more win."
Jordan is playing with tendinitis in both knees, but that has not kept him from being the most dominant player in the series. Whenever the Pistons tried to rally during the fourth quarter, Jordan would make a shot, make a pass or make a defensive play to keep the Bulls in control.
"Anytime they need a big shot, they go to Jordan and he completes the play," Daly said. "He's their finisher. If they can keep the game close, they know they have Jordan around at the end to finish the job."
The Bulls, who led the entire second half, did not flinch when the Pistons made one last, furious run. Detroit's final chance disappeared on a pivotal play with 1 minute 40 seconds remaining and the Pistons trailing, 103-98. After Scottie Pippen lost the ball, Vinnie Johnson (25 points) and Joe Dumars came downcourt two on one against Jordan. But Dumars threw up a wild off-balance shot, trying to draw a foul. Jordan rebounded, and the Pistons never got closer.
"I was going to let Vinnie have the layup because I had four fouls, but he passed to Joe," Jordan said. "I anticipated the pass, then tried to rush at Joe. I didn't foul him. He was off balance. When the shot came off the rim, I grabbed it."
The Pistons were in trouble almost from the opening tap. Chicago shocked Detroit by jumping to a 24-8 lead after 10 minutes, as the Bulls looked more poised and more confident than the defending champions.
Just as they have done previously in this series, the rest of the Bulls gave Jordan plenty of help. Pippen (26 points, 10-for-16 from the field, 10 rebounds) continued to make a name for himself as one of the game's top small forwards, while Horace Grant (17 points) and Bill Cartwright (13 points) were solid throughout the game.
"We've become a mature team that can win on the road," Pippen said. "We're playing smarter. I see the Pistons frustrated because they haven't been able to win a game. We're ready for all the physical stuff they throw at us. Instead of retaliating when they throw a cheap shot, we just let the refs call the fouls and play our game."
For much of the game, the Pistons used a three-guard offense of Isiah Thomas (29 points), Dumars and Johnson (25 points), with Mark Aguirre (17 points) and John Salley (13 points) in the frontcourt. Except for Salley, all of those players are 6 feet 6 inches tall or shorter. But that was a gamble the Pistons' coach, Chuck Daly, felt he had to take. Both Bill Laimbeer (10 points) and James Edwards (2 points) continued to be almost invisible offensively.
"Chicago's athleticism is taking some of our people out of the game," Daly said.
Chicago almost took Detroit out of the game in the first eight minutes. Because the Pistons were so frantic to start quickly, they had trouble controlling their emotions. They missed easy shots and made unforced turnovers. They committed needless fouls. And the Pistons seemed more interested in physically punishing the Bulls than in beating them.
Meanwhile, the Bulls executed their offense. They passed the ball crisply and got all five starters involved early, as the Pistons were reminded again that there is much more to the Bulls than Jordan.
When Detroit fell behind, the action temporarily deteriorated from basketball into a hybrid of wrestling and rugby. Players blantantly shoved each other fighting for rebounds, as the referees, Ed T. Rush, Bernie Fryer and Hue Hollins, struggled to keep play from deteriorating into chaos. But the Bulls appear to have this series firmly under control.
"We've won two championships on the road, and I'd hate to see it die here in our own building," Daly said. "But we're going to have to play a lot better if we're going to beat this club."