Not one, not two, but three.
That’s how many times Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls had their seasons cut down by the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. Sunday night’s Episodes 3 and 4 of ESPN’s The Last Dance gave viewers an in-depth look at the formula that made Michael Jordan arguably the best player the NBA has ever seen.
Here’s the math.
The Bad Boys + Dennis Rodman + Scottie Pippen + Phil Jackson = The G.O.A.T.
Every person that was a part of that equation played a pivotal role in making Jordan who he became and how he’s remembered. Because, like it or not, that combination of experiences is what he needed to become the man who’s 6-for-6 in NBA Finals appearances.
The Detroit Pistons were a true litmus test for Jordan’s Bulls, as each playoff defeat revealed just how much they had improved, while also showing them how much further they had to go.
In 1988, the Bulls were only able to win one game against the Pistons in the Eastern Conference semifinals. In 1989, they won two in the Eastern Conference finals. A year later, they would win three in the same round. And finally, in 1991, they got their revenge by sweeping their arch enemies.
“We had to change something about ourselves, or we weren’t going to beat them,” said former point guard B.J. Armstrong in “Last Dance” about the changes the Bulls had to make to finally get past the Pistons.
After getting punked for three years, Jordan and the Bulls finally hit the weight room, gaining the physical, and mental, strength they needed to become champions.
Oh yeah, and despite what was shown, and said, on Sunday night, there will always be a number of us who will never believe the convenient story about how Pippen woke up with a migraine the morning of Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference finals that left him a shell of himself. I’ll always believe the Pistons broke Pippen that series and he wanted no part of Rodman, Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer that night.
And it’s not like Pippen wilted against just anybody, either. The Pistons are the toughest team the league has ever seen, and one of the best. Many forget that Detroit was just three points away from a three-peat of their own, as they fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the 1988 Finals 108-105 before going on to win back-to-back championships. During that run, Detroit accumulated an impressive 11-5 record in the Finals. And while the Bad Boys were known for their physical defense, the Pistons still own the record for the most points scored in a regular-season game when they defeated the Denver Nuggets 186-184 in 1983.
But while the Pistons may have been the incentive that the Bulls needed, Sunday night illustrated the internal battles Jordan’s teams needed to overcome. The ascension of Jackson, and his offensive philosophies and people management skills, the rise of Pippen, and the addition of Rodman, a former Piston, all served as important cogs in the machine known as “Da Bulls.”
Rodman appreciating how the team allowed him to be him when he needed them to. Pippen understanding that he had teammates who would stand and fight with him. And Jordan realizing that he could only achieve his dreams by giving up some of his powers, allowing others to shine.
It’s as if Episodes 3 and 4 served as a peek behind the curtain that allowed us to see how the magic trick came all together.
In the NBA, every great team has a foe that they must defeat before they can ascend to the top of the mountain. It’s just the way it is. And on Sunday night, we got a chance to witness why the Bulls “first dance” with the Pistons allowed them to have their “last dance” with the Utah Jazz.