The Jordan Rules: Why the Detroit Pistons were Michael Jordan’s biggest challenge

1989: Bill Laimbeer #40 of the Detroit Pistons sits on the bench in a game during the 1988-1989 NBA season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
1989: Bill Laimbeer #40 of the Detroit Pistons sits on the bench in a game during the 1988-1989 NBA season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /
Detroit Pistons
1989: Bill Laimbeer #40 of the Detroit Pistons (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

Before he was a champion, Michael Jordan was bounced by the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs for three straight seasons. Were the “Bad Boys” his biggest challenge?

On Sunday, April 19, ESPN films will debut the first two installments of its highly anticipated miniseries entitled “The Last Dance”.  The ten episode documentary will focus on the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls and is said to feature never before seen footage and stories of Michael Jordan.

Jordan and the Bulls faced off against a wide range of legendary opponents during their run including the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, and Seattle Supersonics. However, these teams were no match as Jordan’s Bulls won 6 championships.

But before winning his 6 championships, Jordan had to win his 1st. And in the years leading up to his 1st championship, Jordan faced what would end up being the biggest challenge of his career: the Detroit Pistons and their “Jordan Rules”.

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The Pistons and Bulls faced off in 4 straight postseasons beginning in 1988. That season, a 24-year old Michael Jordan was ready to take over the league after winning the MVP and beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round. The Pistons had something else to say, beating the Bulls in 5 games and sending Jordan home for the summer.

Jordan came back in 1989 with something to prove. The Bulls and Pistons would once again meet in the playoffs, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals. Chicago got off to a hot start, going up 2-1 in the series, with Jordan pouring in 46 points in game 3.

The Pistons needed a plan to slow down Jordan. According to interviews featured in ESPN’s 30-for-30 entitled Bad Boys, Isiah Thomas was sitting by Lake Michigan in Chicago and called teammate Joe Dumars to say, “I’ve got it. I know how we can stop Jordan”

The “Jordan Rules” were as follows: If Michael is at the point, force him left and double him. If he is on the left wing, immediately double him. If he is on the right wing, force him middle and double him.

The only other rule: Anytime Michael goes by you – nail him. Put him on the ground on every drive.

Backed by their newfound defensive strategy, Detroit went on to win three straight games, advancing to the NBA Finals (eventually winning the title). Once again, Jordan’s season had ended at the hands of the Detroit Pistons.

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Fueled by the bad taste of defeat, Jordan came to play when the two teams met again in the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals. His series averages were insane – 32.1 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game, and 6.3 assists.

But for the third time in a row, the Pistons won the series – this time in 7 games. Again, the Bad Boys would go on to win another championship.

It became evident during the 1990 series that even though Jordan put up amazing numbers, the Pistons were still wearing on him. This really showed at the end of games. Jordan spent the entire offseason training and lifting.

He knew he needed to add muscle before another inevitable run in with the Pistons and the “Jordan Rules” in the playoffs.

In the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls swept the Pistons, finally advancing to the Finals. Jordan had a great series, averaging 29.8 points per game and 7.0 assists per game, most of which went to Scottie Pippen, who had overcome his “migraine game” from the season before.

Just before the end of the last game of the series the Pistons infamous “walk off” happened, officially symbolizing the end of the Bad Boys era. In the same way the Pistons had ended the Celtics, the torch had now been passed to Jordan and the Bulls.

Jordan and the Bulls went on to win 3 straight championships from 1991-1993. They would also three-peat again from 1996-1998. In both runs, the Bulls faced many great teams, but none challenged them quite like the Pistons.

The Pistons possessed an elite backcourt that always gave Jordan fits. Isiah and Dumars were stronger than most guards and challenged Michael on the defensive end. In the paint, the Pistons had the personnel that would frighten just about anyone in Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, and Dennis Rodman.

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Detroit was also extremely balanced with scoring from Vinnie Johnson, Adrian Dantley, and Mark Aguirre. This balance, combined with the right amount of defensive intensity and grit, was enough to overwhelm Jordan and his supporting cast.

The other teams that the Bulls faced on their run had the star power, but lacked balance. The Jazz had the combination of John Stockton and Karl Malone. The Sonics possessed a similar one-two punch in Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.

The stars would play great, but the Bulls would still tear right through them.

Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, and even Magic Johnson helplessly watched Jordan destroy their teams possession after possession. Many teams even tried to duplicate the “Jordan Rules”, but to no avail.

The Bad Boy Pistons were Jordan’s biggest challenge and made him into the relentless champion that he would turnout to be. In his career, Jordan lost just 7 total playoff series – 3 of which were to the Pistons.

It will be interesting to tune in to “The Last Dance” on Sunday night to learn even more about the intense rivalry between these two teams.

Just remember the rules: Anytime Michael goes by you – nail him. Put him on the ground on every drive.

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