The Bad Boys-era Detroit Pistons were the greatest foe the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls ever faced. Detroit took Chicago down in the NBA playoffs three years in a row early in Jordan’s career, resorting to hyper-aggressive tactics known as the “Jordan Rules” to physically and mentally test the Bulls and their superstar guard.
For years, this worked out swimmingly. Detroit beat Chicago in the conference semifinals in 1988, then bounced the Bulls in thee 1988 and 1989 conference finals. As we saw in episode four of The Last Dance, though, that did not happen in 1990 — Chicago’s front office replaced head coach Doug Collins with assistant coach Phil Jackson, who changed up how the team played and stressed becoming a mentally tougher squad.
“With them being more mentally dominant than we were, they knew, soon as we start complaining, they had us,” Bulls forward Horace Grant said. “And they did.”
That, combined with the commitment the Bulls’ players made to becoming physically stronger, worked. Chicago swept Detroit in the conference finals en route to winning their first ring in 1991, capping things off with a 21-point beatdown in the Motor City.
One moment in that Game 4 win stood out for all of those involved, as it was the moment that both teams realized the Pistons could no longer bully the Bulls. Scottie Pippen drove to the rim and received a shove from Dennis Rodman, the type of dirty play that had set the team off in past years. But instead of complaining or trying to retaliate, Pippen sat on the ground with a blank look on his face for a moment.
“When Pippen didn’t respond to that abuse, there’s nothing they could do to beat us then,” Jordan said.
This sentiment was shared by Detroit Pistons forward/center John Salley, who said that “Scottie was unshakeable, didn’t even want a band aid. When we saw that, it was over.”
Pippen’s lack of a response also galvanized the Bulls. Both Grant and Bill Cartwright looked back on the moment fondly, as both guys recalled the team’s mindset as Pippen got up and calmly stepped to the free throw line following the flagrant fouls.
“It was just like, ‘Ok, it’s a foul, let’s go ahead and finish kicking their ass,’” Grant said.
“And put ‘em out of their misery,” Cartwright said.
Chicago managed to do just that. Following this loss, Detroit’s tenure atop the Eastern Conference came to an end. The franchise got bounced in the first round of the playoffs the following year, then spent the next nine years either missing the playoffs or failing to get out of the first round.