When is a win not a win? Tuesday night, it would seem. As somber as pall bearers, the Detroit Pistons accepted their 100-91 victory over the Chicago Bulls - a vital home win that evened the Eastern Conference finals at one game apiece - as if it were a fish worthy of nothing better than being tossed back into the water.
Their guards - Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson - expunged the embarassment of shooting a collective 11 for 45 when the Pistons lost Game 1 Sunday by combining for 69 points (though they still shot only 21 for 51).The Pistons kept Michael Jordan in foul trouble and held him to 27 points. They averted a home sweep that might have been suicidal for a team that is regarded as the title favorite.
And yet when it was over, Thomas called a players-only meeting to address the state of the Pistons, and they collectively concluded that they were playing and meshing horribly and still very much in danger.
"I don't like the way our basketball team is playing," Thomas said. "We're not executing, we're not playing smart basketball, we're not screening well, we're not catching the ball." This is from a man who followed Sunday's 3-for-18 shooting performance by scoring 33 points and abusing Jordan's defense against him.
"I don't like the way I had to play," Thomas said. "It was kind of like the old days, more driving and just running to the basket. Those are the type of things I had to do four or five years ago. We've got too many good players on this basketball team for me to have to do that."
While there were mildly dissenting opinions - "We win a must game," John Salley said - Thomas' diatribe effectively measured the mood of the Pistons.
"We're not in the right frame of mind to win this series right now," Bill Laimbeer said. "I don't think we played a good game at all; I don't think we played any better than Sunday. We just happened to win."
Dennis Rodman said, "I was walking off the court with Isiah and I said, `We're beating ourselves, and we're too good a basketball team to be doing that. We've got to pull ourselves together.' "
Now back off for a minute and assess this morbidity. The Pistons won Game 2. They did much correctly, if unattractively, which is not surprising considering that Pistons Coach Chuck Daly flatly said, "You will not see a pretty game throughout the series."
After Thomas' 14 first-half points kept the game close (tied, 49-49, at halftime), the Pistons managed three sustained runs in the second half, first taking a seven-point lead and then twice stretching it to nine.
Three times the Bulls responded to get close, climbing to 83-82 on Jordan's 18-footer with 6:56 left. Then the Pistons finally broke the Bulls' resilience.
They scored 11 of the next 12 points, seven by Dumars (who had scored only 10 in Game 1) and went up safely, 94-83, with 3:51 to play.
Jordan played only 38 minutes because of a mild case of the flu and foul trouble. "I had chills and was aching all over my body," he said. "I felt like the flu was coming on. It did cause me some fatigue."
The Pistons won despite losing center Laimbeer to a second elbowing technical with 1:12 left in the third quarter.
And the Bulls played the fourth quarter without Pippen, who left with a bruised arch. He will be X-rayed Wednesday. "It was a big factor," Bulls Coach Doug Collins said. "But it would look like sour grapes if I'm trying to find an excuse why we lost. They just played better than we did tonight."