It almost makes me feel nostalgic. Before there was MJ, Scottie, and Horace winning championships, there was the Bulls getting maimed by the Pistons. The Bulls would get knocked down, and they wouldn't get up again. The early 90's Pistons were the fiercest team I've ever seen on a basketball court. I'm not sure the Bulls ever overcame that. It's just that by the time the Bulls swept the Pistons in 1991, the Bulls were so sublimely talented that no degree of toughness could slow them down. Plus, the talent half of the Pistons' talent plus toughness tandem was fading due to age and injury.
This year's Bulls were always much better at home than on the road. Opening against the Heat at home they gained confidence and momentum, and were able to keep it going in Miami. Opening against the Pistons in Detroit, the Bulls were beaten down and embarrassed. It was apparently enough for Chris Duhon to punch his own ticket on the end of his Bulls' career. He no-showed a film session and collected a DNP-Coach's Decision in game 3. Ben Wallace has taken to mixing spurts of energy and production with periods of skulking about, both on and off the court. He showed up late for game 3, played well early, but spent much of the third quarter not getting back on D.
Returning home, the energy and confidence of the crowd, which remains one of the best in basketball even in the UC can't channel that energy the way Chicago Stadium could, got the Bulls off and running. The Bulls needed to stake the Pistons last night. Up 19 points in the 3rd quarter, the Bulls needed to not only hold on to win, but to put the Pistons away. Instead the Bulls played scared, the Pistons came back, and we can all start debating Roy Hibbert vs. Spencer Hawes.
Actually, last night's game reminded me of something other than the old Pistons-Bulls rivalry. Ironically, this memory comes from March of 1991, the same year the Bulls finally toppled the Pistons in the east. In 1990, UNLV mauled Duke in the NCAA finals 103-73. Entering the national semi-final in 1991, UNLV was on a 45 game winning streak and heavily favored over Duke again. But this Duke team was a group of stone cold killers. As much as Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill have disappointed in the NBA, the three were the toughest, most confident, savviest group of college players that I've ever laid eyes on. Guys like Brian Davis and Thomas Hill had also picked up that swagger, allowing them to play far above their talent and skill. In fact, it was Davis who would connect on the three point play (the old-fashioned way) that gave Duke the lead for good down the stretch. But what I remember most about that game, and what I was reminded of last night, is how scared UNLV looked down the stretch.
UNLV led at the half. They led by four with three minutes left. And then they fell apart. Greg Anthony may or may not have been scared, but he fouled out fairly early. Moses Scurry probably wasn't scared, and in any event looked like a hardened criminal (probably a good guy and gentle soul, just scary looking), so no one would say he was anyway. But Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon were quaking in their free sneakers. The two best players on what some were calling the best team of all time, and they were terrified. They were afraid to shoot. They dribbled too much, passed too much, and when they did shoot, hesitated first and then missed because they were out of rhythm. Johnson missed free throw after free throw down the stretch, and their final possession deteriorated into complete chaos.
Ladies and gentlemen, playing the roles of Johnson and Augmon last night: Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich. From the mid-third quarter on, the two of them looked terrified. They dribbled too much, over passed, and were afraid to take big shots. Luol Deng, like Anderson Hunt in 1991, kept firing away, but his teammates lacked the guts to back him up. I wonder if energy guys like Tyrus Thomas, Thabo Sefolosha and Andres Nocioni could have helped lift a flat team in the third quarter. We'll never know. Skiles never called their numbers. Nocioni entered with less than three minutes left in the period and neither Thomas nor Sefolosha played in the second half.
This is not a condemnation of Gordon, Hinrich or the current Bulls. They're young. Unlike the Rebels on 91 who were done after that year, the Bulls can learn and grow from this experience. Hopefully they will. The Pistons are ageing. Chauncey Billups is a free agent. They'll probably resign him, but that may mean they can't resign guys like Carlos Delfino and Jason Maxiell, who were necessary pieces to eventually replace ageing guys like Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber, Antonio McDyess, etc. A window will open for this Bulls team, and hopefully they'll be more ready when that time comes.