Leo Tolstoy did not write his epic “War and Peace” about Michael Jordan, but the novel’s name does fit the Chicago Bulls superstar’s career against the Detroit Pistons, battling three years of war with the “Bad Boys” before finally finding is peace – and overcoming the “Jordan Rules”.
There will always be basketball fans who argue that “back in the day, everything was better”. Most often the younger generation has a decent argument. But the old-timers definitely were right when it comes to rivalries in the NBA. One of the most historical rivalries took place between Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons.
Heck, the rivalry even sprouted a new defensive philosophy: The “Jordan Rules”.
In the mid-1980s, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer helped the Pistons build up the nickname the “Bad Boys”. And for four years – from 1988 to 1991 – the Pistons and Bulls faced off in the playoffs.
Detroit battled multiple years with the Boston Celtics before finally overtaking them in the East, reaching the NBA Finals in 1988 and losing to the Lakers before returning to the Finals and winning back-to-back crowns in 1989 and 1990.
The Pistons handled the Bulls the same way they had been handled by the Celtics: these youngsters didn’t know what it took to win a title. The Bad Boys took down the Bulls 4-1 in the second round of the playoffs in 1988. But it wasn’t until the 1989 playoffs where the “Jordan Rules” were instituted.
Chicago grabbed a 2-1 lead in the Conference Finals and Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars talked for hours afterwards trying to figure out a way to stop Jordan. They finally came up with something and passed it along to the coaching staff.
In Game 4, Jordan made just 5-of-15 shots in scoring “only” 23 points in an 86-80 Detroit win. What was the difference?
“When he goes to the bathroom, we all go with him,” Daly is rumored to have told his team.
In general, the Pistons wanted to defend Jordan very physically. Alongside the excellent-defending Dumars, Detroit had big men such as Laimbeer, Mahorn, John Salley or James Edwards waiting for the double – and give MJ a nudge.
“Any time he went by you, you had to nail him. If he was coming off a screen, nail him. We didn’t want to be dirty… but we had to make contact and be very physical,” Daly told Sports Illustrated.
The second point of the “Jordan Rules” was to make him face different defenders: Dumars was the main defender but Vinnie Johnson was there as was Thomas or Rodman. The third aspect was to steer Jordan a certain direction – usually into a space where more help would come.
The Pistons would win the final two games of the 1989 series – holding Jordan to just 18 points in Game 5. One of the big reasons for so much focus on Jordan was that his teammates Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant had not yet become All-Stars – especially Pippen. The “Bad Boys” knew that Jordan still had a me-against-the-rest-of-the-world mentality and did not trust his teammates enough.
The fourth point of the “Jordan Rules” was to make sure MJ worked defensively. The Pistons offense featured the excellent trio of Thomas, Dumars and Johnson, who averaged 50 points a game in the 1989 series and made sure Jordan was exerting energy at the defensive end.
That led Jordan to working on his body in the off-season and Detroit and Chicago faced off again in the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals – this time with the battle going to seven games. Game 7 is possibly most famous for Pippen suffering from migraine headaches and making just 1-of-10 shots in a 93-74 loss.
The Pistons were still mentally stronger than the Bulls, but that would change in 1991 – in the fourth battle between MJ and the “Bad Boys”.
Bulls head coach Phil Jackson’s triangle offense only really started to work against Detroit in 1990-91 when Pippen claimed more responsibility.
With the Pistons still wanting to stop Jordan and make the rest of the Bulls beat them, Chicago swept Detroit in four games in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals – with the Pistons reserves leaving the court even before the end of Game 4 and without shaking the hands of the Bulls players.
With that, the reign of the Pistons was over and the “Jordan Rules” were no longer – though they will always have a place in one of the top rivalries in the good ole days of basketball.
by FIVE Magazine #169 – Michael Jordan: Jordan Rules – Text: Manuel Baraniak