It all comes down to the edge that NBA teams claw through a grueling schedule to obtain.
They call it the home-court advantage and, in this case, as Detroit and the Chicago Bulls joust for the Eastern Conference title, the defending world champion Pistons are supposed to have it.The seventh and decisive game will be played at The Palace here Sunday, but the so-called advantage is not a physical thing, it is a state of mind.
"They are a good team on their home floor," Chicago Coach Phil Jackson said of the Pistons, who are 8-0 at The Palace during the playoffs. "But the seventh game is always a toss-up game. Any time a team can get to a seventh game, anything can happen."
And when that team, albeit an underdog, carries with it the firepower of a Michael Jordan, the boost that a maniacal crowd gives to the home team is diminished even more.
The Pistons, loaded as they are with talent and experience, sounded Saturday like a team regretting that it let the Bulls get by in Game 6.
"Experience, I figure, is nothing," said Dennis Rodman, who played on a sore left ankle that will be even more tender today. "We had all the experience in the world (in Game 6) and still lost. We just have to play well, do our job or we're out of it."
Rodman has played the last two games on the injured ankle. He gets electronic treatment between contests, and during games, while he's on the bench, he bounces his foot off a miniature trampoline to keep the ankle loose.
His resolve, however, is no more than that of Bulls point guard John Paxson, who has played with a sprained right ankle since the series started.
Paxson reinjured the ankle in the third quarter of Game 6, but like Rodman, he will be in uniform today even if they have to bring him out in a wheelchair.
"My ankle is real bad," Paxson said. "I rolled on it and felt it come up and go back in. It's the same ankle I sprained the last time, but I will be dressed, and it will be taped as tight as it can be taped. I wouldn't miss it for anything. This is the game we want."
Over the past two years, the Pistons are 25-6 in postseason play, but five of those six losses were against Chicago.
"We're either going to the finals or going home," Detroit guard Vinnie Johnson said. "Our backs are to the wall. Usually we rise to meet those challenges. It's do or die."
The Bulls know that feeling. They were at Chicago Stadium on Friday night with the prospect of fishing, golfing and other leisurely activities just a final buzzer away. But Jordan wasn't ready to shoulder his golf clubs and head for the country club.
He fired off 18 points in the third quarter, one less than the entire Detroit team, almost single-handedly guaranteeing the Bulls one last shot at advancing to the NBA finals.
"Detroit has been our nemesis," said Jordan, who led the Bulls to the conference finals in 1989 only to be beaten down by the Pistons in six games. "We got to the hill a couple of times, but we haven't gotten over the hill. Now we are there and we have to get past them."
Jordan's 29 points in Game 6 stood taller than the 47 and 42 he scored in Games 3 and 4 because of the knockout punch delivered in the third quarter, when the Bulls stretched a one-point lead to 80-63 going into the final period.
Though the Bulls' superstar is averaging just under 38 points a game in the playoffs, he has scored 20 and 22 in his last two appearances at The Palace.
"We played all year to get the home-court advantage," Pistons coach Chuck Daly said. "Hopefully that will work in our favor."
If Craig Hodges starts hitting three-pointers the way he did in Game 6 (he went 4 for 4), Daly's Jordan Rules, which call for double-and triple-teaming the gifted one, will be useless.
And with Paxson ailing, the Pistons can expect to see a lot of Hodges.
"I want a ring this year," said Hodges, who has more playoff experience than any player on Chicago's roster but has been denied a title. "If we concentrate on what we're doing and our goal we will get it."
There's one final thing about seventh games. They make players nasty. And no team is as good when it's bad as the Pistons.