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Detroit Pistons Championship: ‘from The Last Dance’ Reveals How Detained ‘the Rules Of Jordan Chicago Bulls

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Almost three decades have passed since the Chicago Bulls dethroned the Detroit Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, the fourth and final instalment of one of the NBA‘s most acrimonious and bitter rivalries.

Time may be a great healer, but Michael Jordan admitted his feelings for the Pistons haven’t changed in the 29 intervening years.

“I hated them,” Jordan said in Episode 3 of The Last Dance on Sunday. “And that hate carries even to this day.”

The 10-part ESPN’s documentary chronicles the Bulls’ cavalcade to the 1998 NBA title, the franchise and Jordan’s sixth in the latter’s final season in Chicago.

Telling the story of the Bulls’ six titles in eight years, however, would be impossible without mentioning the Pistons.

Sandwiched between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics‘ dynasties of the 1980s and the Bulls’ first three-peat of the early 1990s, the Pistons are a curious case study in NBA history. Often remembered more for their bruising approach than for making three consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals and winning back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990.

Crucially, they delayed the beginning of the Bulls’ unprecedented era of domination by at least three years and often did so by pushing the envelope as far as they could.

Under coach Chuck Daly, the Pistons relied on a win-at-all-costs mentality to impose themselves on their opponents and quickly earned the “Bad Boys” monicker.

In Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas, John Salley, James Edwards and Dennis Rodman—who would later join the Bulls in 1995—the Pistons possessed a group of players who were all too happy to adopt a rugged, confrontational approach.

“They made it personal,” Jordan explained. “They physically beat the s*** out of us.”

Having lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals, the Pistons were ahead of the curve than the Bulls, who had been eliminated in the first round during each of Jordan’s first three seasons in the league.

By 1988, the Pistons and the Bulls arrived into the playoffs at the second and third seed in the Eastern Conference and crossed paths in the conference semifinals.

The reigning NBA MVP, however, was no match for the Pistons, who dispatched the Bulls 4-1. Detroit won both games in Chicago and kept the Bulls below 85 points in three games, limiting No. 23’s devastating offensive potential.

A year later, the two foes met again, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls and Pistons split the opening two games in Detroit, before Jordan hit the game-winner with three seconds left in Game 3 to give the Bulls a 2-1 lead.

The Pistons, however, came back to take the next three games en route to sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers 4-0 in the NBA Finals, avenging their seven-game loss to the Lakers from a year earlier.

Detroit’s bruising style aimed at limiting Jordan became known as “The Jordan Rules.”

Former Pistons assistant coach Brendan Malone described the rules as such:

“On the wings, we’re going to push him to the elbow. And we’re not going to let him drive to the baseline. When he’s on top, we’re going to influence him to his left. When he got the ball in the low post, we’re going to trap him from the top.”

As Rodman revealed on Sunday, the Pistons were under clear instructions to intimidate the Bulls and Jordan from a physical standpoint.

“Chuck Daly said this is the Jordan Rule: Every time he go to the f***ing basket, put him on the ground,” Rodman, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1990 and 1991, said.

“When he goes to the basket, he ain’t gonna dunk. We’re gonna hit you and you’re gonna be on the ground. We were trying to physically hurt Michael [Jordan].”

Thomas acknowledged the Pistons were prepared to do all they could to stop Jordan.

“We knew Michael Jordan is the greatest player, and we tried to use it as a rallying cry to come together,” he explained in Episode 3. “We had to do everything from a physicality standpoint to stop him.”

Speaking two years ago, Thomas had been far less magnanimous.

“We weren’t the only team that shut down Michael Jordan […],” he told ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk.

“Chicago wasn’t a factor in the 80s […] They couldn’t get by us, they couldn’t get by Boston. […] That’s just real talk.”

Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls takes the ball to the basket during the game against the Detroit Pistons in 1988.
Allsport/Getty

The Pistons prevailed again in 1990, stopping the Bulls in seven games in the conference finals and going on to defend their title by defeating the Portland Trail Blazers in six games.

A year later, however, the Bulls finally broke through in empathic fashion, deposing the Pistons in four games in the Eastern Conference finals.

Fittingly for a rivalry that had developed into a bitter feud, the Pistons’ reign ended acrimoniously. With 7.9 seconds left in Game 4 and Chicago leading by 21 points on the road, Detroit players left the court without congratulating their opponents on advancing.

“Straight-up b******,” Bulls forward Horace Grant said of the incident in Episode 4. “That’s what they walked off like. We just kicked your ass, go ahead and go.”

Thomas, unsurprisingly, held a different view.

“To us, that was OK,” Thomas said, suggesting the Celtics had reserved Detroit the same treatment when the Pistons beat Boston in the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals.

“Knowing what we know now and the aftermath that took place, I think all of us would have stopped and said congratulations like they do now.”

Jordan, however, steadfastly maintains Thomas’ explanation is simply an excuse.

“Whatever he says now, you know it wasn’t his true actions then,” Jordan said.

“He’s had time enough to think about it—or the reaction of the public that’s kind of changed his perspective of it. You can show me anything you want. There’s no way you’re going to convince me he wasn’t an a**hole.”

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