AUBURN HILLS, MICH., JUNE 3 -- It was ordered, yet chaotic, the way the Detroit Pistons played defense today. It was planned, yet improvised. It was total and dominant and the reason they ripped the seventh and decisive game from the Chicago Bulls, 93-74, to win the NBA's Eastern Conference title.
"It was beautiful," Isiah Thomas said.
Quite. The Pistons made the NBA finals for the third straight year, beginning here Tuesday night against Portland, with a defensive clinic, holding the Bulls to 31.1 percent (28 of 90) shooting. That included the stretch in the second quarter in which Chicago missed 13 of 15 shots as Detroit turned a 27-25 deficit into a 48-33 halftime lead in eight minutes.
Detroit went with a quicker lineup -- Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, Mark Aguirre and John Salley -- because Chicago had a smaller unit on the floor. The Pistons jumped at the ball at midcourt, then switched on every pass. Thomas harassed rookie B.J. Armstrong from the top, not allowing any entry passes. Salley, who finished with five blocked shots, had two during the spurt and altered a few more.
"Their experience killed us," said Michael Jordan, who scored a game-high 31. "Nobody except Bill Cartwright has been in that position before. They came out and certainly poured it on, and we couldn't collect ourselves to try to keep our poise."
From the 7:51 mark of the second quarter, when Jordan's follow-up shot put the Bulls up by two, Chicago was stuffed, and Detroit finished the half with a 23-6 roll, ending on a lay-in by Rodman. That completed a quarter in which the Pistons shot 82 percent (14 of 17).
"It was like everybody was on a rubber band out there," Thomas said. "Everybody was moving, covering for each other. It's very rare that you have stretches like that."
The game was Thomas's for about 15 minutes in the middle of the second quarter and start of the third. He dominated the Bulls at both ends of the court, finishing with 21 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds.
Aguirre had 15 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes. Salley had 13 points in 32 minutes, as Detroit's bench outscored Chicago's, 33-15.
To be fair, though, the Bulls didn't really have a bench today. John Paxson couldn't play on his sprained ankle, forcing Craig Hodges into the starting lineup. And Scottie Pippen was rendered useless by migrane headaches. Though he played 42 minutes, he was one of 10 shooting and scored only two points.
The migranes have come up a couple of times before. Their arrival today couldn't have been worse timing. He played about three minutes in the first quarter before coming out. He returned in about four minutes, but it wasn't better.
"It had my vision blurred," Pippen said. "I didn't feel comfortable out there handling the ball. I didn't want to do anything stupid with the ball. I don't think I ever went to the hole."
No one else could meet the challenge. Hodges, who made seven of nine shots in Game 6 for 19 points, was three of 13 today (two of 12 from three-point range) and scored eight points. Cartwright scored just six, playing 23 minutes. Horace Grant was three of 17 shooting, scoring 10.
For about 15 minutes, though, the Bulls were right there. The Pistons were having trouble -- as usual -- scoring in their half-court offense, and Chicago was getting second and third shots. The sellout crowd of 21,454 at The Palace was uneasy.
But Salley made a three-point play at 7:43 to give Detroit a 28-27 lead. Rodman stole the ball from Jordan, leading to a breakaway lay-in by Dumars. Chicago called time out, but couldn't get a good shot afterward.
Thomas fed Salley for a transition dunk. Pippen missed a three-pointer. Thomas drove for two more. Salley smacked Cartwright's shot to Aguirre, who drove the length of the court for a basket that made it 36-27 at the 5:43 mark.
This prompted another Chicago timeout and Pippen ended the 11-0 run with his only basket of the day; but it only started another Detroit spurt, this one 10-2. By the time Salley hit a jumper with the shot clock running down, the Pistons' lead was 46-30 with less than a minute left in the half.
"We've been on the other end of it," Dumars said. "We were over there and they were suffocating us and we couldn't get anything going. It's frustrating when you can't score in the other people's building, the crowd is into the game, and they're suffocating you on defense every time."
Said Hodges: "We weren't able to penetrate. Scottie not feeling well didn't help the situation because he's one of the slashers we need."
Aguirre never has been accused of playing suffocating defense. But there he was, jumping out on the switches, jumping in the passing lanes. He has learned what he was told when he first came to Detroit last season about team defense.
"Dennis can overplay," Aguirre said, "because he knows if he gets beat, we can switch and don't have to help. I had success guarding Pippen, Grant or even Cartwright. I had decent success and I would be the one to worry about, rather than Salley. So we could all move it around and switch."
Said Salley: "Everybody was here today. There were no doubts that one guy wasn't here. It was everyone's main thought . . . this is it, this is work. After 82 games it all comes down to this. Only the elite teams are here."
Out front, Thomas never went for a steal, yet still took Armstrong out of the game, piece by piece with relentless ball pressure. And he took the rookie to school at the other end, getting the open shots himself or finding someone else.
"I thought Isiah had his best game of the playoffs, maybe his best game of the year," Pistons Coach Chuck Daly said.
To their credit, the Bulls came back strong in the third, getting within 69-59 at the end of the quarter. And they had a couple of chances to get closer early in the fourth, when a basket would have put the pressure back on Detroit.
But they never made one, and a 9-0 run by the Pistons made an 82-70 game with 5:06 left a 21-point blowout at 2:41. It marked the third straight year the Pistons have eliminated Chicago, though the Bulls have come from a 4-1 series defeat to this year's 4-3.
Detroit truly has something special going. The Pistons are 26-6 in the postseason the last two years. They can be talked about with the Lakers and Celtics, and that's always been important to their captain, Thomas.
"I can really appreciate what the Lakers and Celtics did the last eight, nine, 10 years," Thomas said. "This was a tough year for us trying to get back to the Finals. We had a lot of obstacles; we had a lot of diversions during the regular season. But we hung tough."