CHICAGO -- There is only one thing left for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Beat Detroit. Jordan could make all the highlight reels in the world, he could win the NBA dunk contest, the Bulls could win 65 games in the regular season and dominate the Lakers, Spurs and Celtics. None of it would matter. If the Bulls can't beat Detroit they can't get to the NBA Finals and Jordan will continue to be Ernie Banks.
That's why a recent 21-point loss at the Palace galled him. "It was a big test and we flunked," he said. "Grade of F. It's the kind of report card you don't want to take home to your parents."
Jordan's teammates must have gotten the message that he doesn't like being embarrassed. The same message was delivered in a nicely wrapped package Tuesday inside delirious Chicago Stadium: Bulls 98, Pistons 86.
Jordan had 37 points and eight assists, but doesn't he always? The Bulls won and regained a measure of respect because Scottie Pippen showed up with 14 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists; because Bill Cartwright (12 points, 10 rebounds) outplayed three or four Detroit pivotmen; because John Paxson scored 15 points; and because the Bulls played the kind of defense Detroit is known for.
This was probably as close to a must-game as a championship contender can have two months into the NBA season. A loss, before 18,676 at home, would have been devastating to the Bulls' psyches. "We've already had good success against everybody else," Jordan said. "The Pistons have won 11 of the last 12 against us in the regular season." (Actually, eight of the last 11, but we get Jordan's message.) "No other team has beaten us that way, controlled us that way. We have to eliminate that dominance."
There's only one way to do that: Get Pippen to be the all-star he purports to be. Last spring, in the conference finals, Pippen came down with a headache, played wretchedly and the Bulls got blown out of Game 7 at the Palace. Last week, Pippen missed 14 of 16 shots and scored four points. The formula is a simple one for the Bulls: When Pippen stands up they win; when he disappears they lose. Against the Pistons, he often disappears, and they know it.
Listen to Jordan: "Scottie's so key. When he makes himself key, they have to pay attention to him. He creates things for other players, just the way I do. He has to play the way he did today for us to beat them."
The greatness of Jordan is that he needs only one other guy to have an all-court impact against Detroit. Pippen has to be that guy. With the Bulls clinging to an 80-76 lead, Pippen whipped a pass to Jordan for a basket that extended Chicago's lead to six. With the lead up to nine, following a Horace Grant jumper and Jordan free throw, Pippen stole a long pass and saved the ball from going out of bounds.
Paxson missed a shot, but Pippen tipped around the rebound until it went off Detroit out of bounds. Pippen then nailed a jumper for 87-76 with four minutes to play. Game over.
Against the Lakers three days earlier, Pippen had 28 points in a victory. That prompted Magic Johnson to say: "Lots of contributions from lots of guys -- that's what they have to have if they ever want to come out of the East. Detroit says, 'We know Michael's going to get his.' And they shut the other guys down."
This was just an early-round, feeling-out process in a 15-round fight that probably won't end until June. The Bulls actually out-Pistoned the Pistons. Grant got ejected for throwing a punch at Joe Dumars. It's amazing how passive the Pistons were after that, even down the stretch. The Bulls also smacked around Isiah Thomas pretty good.
He suffered a blow to the head that dislocated a tube near his eye that helps let his tears flow (the tear duct was injured last season). For a change, Detroit was on the defensive about how rough the other team played. The Bulls may have learned a lesson: As long as it's not Jordan or Pippen who gets ejected, it may be best to do unto Detroit before Detroit does unto them.
"It was a foul and not called," Chuck Daly said of the blow Isiah suffered. "When he misses a layup and goes to the floor, he's been fouled."
Daly may have worries other than Thomas. The Pistons (now 16-11) fell two games behind the Bulls and 2 1/2 behind Milwaukee in the Central Division. Jordan says it's a mirage. "It seems as though they're not shooting particularly well," he said. Vinnie Johnson (two measly points in 20 minutes) is "not the force coming off the bench they want him to be. Yet. Maybe they relax when they play other teams. But rarely, if ever, when they play us do we catch them relaxing."
Relaxing was at the top of Jordan's priority list after a whirlwind Christmas weekend. Beat L.A., watch wife Juanita give birth to 6-pound Marcus early Christmas Eve morn, then beat Detroit. "It was tough for me to sleep," he said. "It was joyous. I was in great spirits. It was very inspiring to know you helped bring someone into the world."
It also was good for Jordan's peace of mind to bring back a report card he wouldn't be embarrassed to show his parents. "We get an A today," Jordan said. "But I have to be cautiously optimistic. We have to learn how to beat Detroit in Detroit. Unless we win home-court advantage" through the playoffs.
Because the Bulls can beat everybody in the East -- home or away -- except the Pistons, they may be able to earn the home court against Detroit. That may be the only way Jordan gets a report card to be proud of at the end of the spring term.