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‘The Last Dance’ Episode 4 recap: For Michael Jordan, toppling the Pistons was a driving force

Isiah Thomas and his Detroit Pistons are a focus of Episode 4 of “The Last Dance.” (Fred Jewel/AP)

ESPN’s “The Last Dance” is a 10-part documentary that focuses on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. Read our preview here. Previous recaps: Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3

The path to the top for Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls was neither short nor easy. For all of Jordan’s individual brilliance in the late 1980s, he never turned Chicago into an elite team. The Bulls gradually improved from bad to good to very good over the first three episodes of “The Last Dance,” but the Detroit Pistons nevertheless eliminated them from the playoffs in 1988, 1989 and 1990. Episode 4, naturally, focused on how Jordan and the Bulls finally got over the hump — a subject that required diving into Coach Phil Jackson’s impact.

Nothing brought out raw emotions from Jordan quite like the Pistons. In his interviews, he described cursing out his teammates for failing to stand up to their rivals, crying after the 1990 loss and dedicating himself to the weight room that summer. His treatment of Isiah Thomas, whom he has never forgiven for refusing to shake hands after Chicago swept Detroit in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, can only be described as hatred.

The filmmakers first allowed Thomas to mount a self-defense. The Hall of Fame point guard expressed regret and said teammate Bill Laimbeer led the charge off the court. He argued that leaving without handshakes was standard practice at the time, bolstering his claim by noting that members of the Boston Celtics once left early after losing a series to the Pistons.

Before he even viewed Thomas’s comments, Jordan could not contain his disgust.

“Well, I know it’s all bulls---,” Jordan said. “Whatever he says now, it wasn’t his true actions then. He’s had time enough to think about it, or the reaction of the public has changed his perspective. You can show me anything you want; there’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a--hole.”

His anger increased as he watched the clip of Thomas, and he dismissed the notion that handshakes didn’t matter at the time.

“I shook everybody’s hands two years in a row when they beat us,” Jordan continued. “There is a certain respect to the game that we paid to them. That’s sportsmanship. No matter how much it hurts. Believe me, it f---ing hurt. They didn’t have to shake our hands. We knew we whooped their a-- already. To me that was better in some ways than winning a championship.”

Horace Grant, who was often targeted physically by the Pistons, put it even more bluntly: “Straight up b----es, that’s what they walked off like.”

Chicago savored its victory over Detroit after spending years obsessing over its rival. Jordan had added 15 pounds of muscle because he “wanted to administer pain” to match the physical play of the “Bad Boys.” General Manager Jerry Krause also replaced Doug Collins, a Jordan favorite, with Jackson in 1989.

The coaching change was intended to maximize Jordan’s impact by putting him in a more sophisticated offensive structure. Trying to beat Detroit one-on-five had not worked, and Jackson was amenable to the triangle offense espoused by Chicago assistant Tex Winter, a Krause favorite.

Indeed, Jordan developed a better balance with his supporting cast in Jackson’s offense, which used motion and passing to prevent the defense from loading up on the Bulls’ superstar. In 1990-91, Chicago won 61 games — a franchise record to that point — and Jordan claimed his second MVP award. In the playoffs, Jordan worked on Scottie Pippen and Grant, encouraging them to resist Detroit’s punishing tactics. Jordan spoke proudly of Pippen’s ability to shake off hard fouls and was candid in recounting his advice to Grant.

“Don’t f---ing whine,” Jordan says. “Don’t let them see you whine. That’s how they know they’ve got you. Just be strong. We’re going to beat these bullies.”

With better focus and more experience, Jordan and the Bulls were too much for the Pistons. The behind-the-scenes footage of their celebration on the team plane was a sight to behold, with Krause drunkenly dancing with a red cup in hand as the Bulls cheered him on.

After a nervy hangover Game 1 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals, Jordan took control of the series. In Game 2, he made 13 consecutive field goals, including the “Spectacular Move” layup. The lefty shot, during which he switched hands in midair, symbolized the entire series: There was no one who could stop him anymore, and he knew it. Pippen’s sturdy defense on Magic Johnson was all the help Jordan needed.

Chicago sewed up its first title on a collective note as John Paxson punished Los Angeles for double-teaming Jordan by hitting a series of clutch shots in Game 5. For Jackson, whose primary goal early in his tenure had been to get more from the Bulls by convincing Jordan to do less, it was an ideal ending.

“That was exactly what Phil was trying to get Michael to believe in,” Paxson said. “These other guys can help you out.”

Best quote: “You did it the right way.” — Phil Jackson

Jackson uttered those words while embracing an ecstatic Jordan during a madhouse locker room celebration following the title. It’s a poignant exchange: Even with champagne pouring on all sides, the coach sought out his superstar to assign credit, convey his pride and positively reinforce his newfound trust in his teammates. The scene perfectly encapsulated Jackson’s genius and the depth of what became an enduring partnership.

Episode 4 offered the broad strokes of Jackson’s path to coaching the Bulls: childhood in Montana as the son of a pastor and a minister, a successful playing career with the New York Knicks and a whirlwind coaching rise that included stops in Puerto Rico and the Continental Basketball Association. His unconventional approach was best summed up by longtime friend Charley Rosen, who described Jackson as a “hippie” free spirit who once roamed a California beach thinking he was a lion after taking LSD.

Jackson’s individualism made him uniquely gifted at connecting with players. He bonded with Dennis Rodman over their shared interest in Native American culture, and he oriented his pitch to Jordan around doing whatever was necessary to help him find playoff success. It was the right message. While many stars then and now claim to tune out criticism, Jordan acknowledged that media talk about his lack of team success relative to Johnson and Larry Bird “ate at me.”

After the Bulls beat the Lakers, Jordan was seen yelling, “Seven years coming!” — a reference to the length of his pro career to that point. He eventually broke down in tears while clutching the trophy with his father at his side.

“Sometimes we questioned whether he was human, whether he had feelings,” Bulls center Will Purdue said. “A guy who was totally focused on [winning] only. The only emotion we had seen out of him was anger and frustration. We were literally stunned to see those emotions.”

Funniest moment: Jordan didn’t embrace the triangle offense overnight. Under Collins in 1986-87, Jordan averaged 37.1 points, attempted 27.8 shots per game and posted a 38.3 usage rate — all career highs that easily led the league. Unsurprisingly, Jordan enjoyed that setup and harbored skepticism toward Jackson, who discouraged isolation play.

“I wasn’t a Phil Jackson fan,” he said. “He was coming in to take the ball out of my hands. Doug put the ball in my hands. Everybody has an opportunity to touch the ball [under Jackson]. I didn’t want Bill Cartwright to have the ball with five seconds left. That’s not an equal opportunity offense. That’s f---ing bulls---.”

Jordan had a point. Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook have found themselves confronting the same dilemma over the past two decades. How much, exactly, should a talented scorer trust his lesser teammates? When does sharing become harmful?

“Tex would yell at me to move the ball and say that there’s no I in team,” Jordan recalled with a smile. “I told him, ‘But there’s an I in win.’ ”

Of course, Jackson had a point, too. His strategy cut into Jordan’s statistics slightly, but he still regularly led the league in scoring, shot attempts and usage rate in the 1990s. Jackson did not force Jordan to remake his game. Instead, he gently tweaked his franchise player’s mentality to great effect.

Most revealing scene: Much of Episode 4 was spent chronicling the joys of victory, but one of Jordan’s most painful defeats — Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference finals to the Pistons — was also painted in full.

Detroit won handily, in part because Pippen was suffering from a migraine that left the forward feeling nauseous before the game. Once he took the court, he appeared disoriented, committed uncharacteristic turnovers and struggled to shoot.

“I was just blinded. I couldn’t see,” Pippen recalled. “I couldn’t focus. I was seeing double, black. I couldn’t get my eyesight.”

The timing was terrible, and the incident stuck with Pippen. Critics raised it — along with other untimely injuries and his decision to sit out the closing seconds of a 1994 playoff game — to argue he couldn’t be fully trusted in high-pressure situations.

Jordan admitted he was “absolutely devastated” after the game and that he broke down in tears on the team bus. Yet he placed no blame on Pippen.

“I can’t argue the point that he had a migraine,” Jordan said. “It was one of those things that’s so unfortunate.”

It’s fair to wonder whether the hyper-scrutiny of the social media era would have frayed their relationship if the same thing happened today. Instead, the loss strengthened their bond, with Jordan realizing he needed to provide more emotional support to Pippen.

“If you stand next to him,” Jordan said of his longtime sidekick, “you make him stronger.”

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