The alibi sounded familiar, even if the guy who got caught using it did not.

"Credit them with good, aggressive defense," Detroit coach Chuck Daly said Tuesday after Michael Jordan, celebrating the birth of his second son, scored 37 points as the Chicago Bulls held off Isiah Thomas and the slumping Pistons 98-86."We just couldn't score in the second half. Thirty-six points just isn't enough to win in this building. They double-teamed Isiah," he added, "and we didn't adjust."

Substitute the name "Michael" for "Isiah" in the alibi above and you have, almost word for word, the kind of postgame speeches Chicago coach Phil Jackson, his players and his predecessors have been stuck making for three seasons now.

So how happy were the Bulls to do the whipping instead of getting whipped?

"This is probably the biggest Christmas present I have ever had," the Bulls' Horace Grant said.

Still, it was hardly overstatement when he added a moment later, "It was a big present for the team, also. It helped us out psychologically."

The Christmas Day meeting was the second this season in a white-hot rivalry that has become one of the NBA's most closely watched, if not competitive, over the last three seasons. The Pistons, who reached the NBA finals in the first of those seasons and followed with consecutive championships, beat the Bulls in each of the last two Eastern Conference finals.

They held a 15-3 advantage in regular-season games coming into this year, including five straight and 10 of 11. And on top of that, Detroit ended its worst skid since 1985 by hammering the Bulls 105-84 at home last week in their only previous meeting this season.

"There's no need to point fingers over that one. We flunked the first test," Jordan said. "We studied. This time, we got an `A.'

"We have to measure ourselves against them. We've had success against other teams, so we have confidence against them. But it's different with Detroit," he added. "We know we have to go through them to get through the Eastern Conference. That's what makes beating them important. It builds confidence."

There was less on the line Tuesday than in some recent meetings. But with the Bulls seeking revenge for the embarrassing defeat last week, and the Pistons frustrated by a cold-shooting second half - they shot just 24 percent in the third quarter, and managed only eight baskets for the half - the game made up in intensity what it may have lacked in incentive.

The pushing and shoving evident under both baskets at the start flared briefly near the end. It led to the ejection of Chicago's Horace Grant after a scuffle with Detroit's Joe Dumars with 3:05 remaining and the Bulls ahead 89-79.

Dumars, who was not ejected, threw an elbow into Grant's stomach as the Bulls' Scottie Pippen was moving the ball upcourt. Grant retaliated by throwing a right hand to the midsection of the retreating Dumars in full view of an officials, who quickly stepped between the two."I'm sorry for what happened. I had just been caught with a hard screen and I threw an elbow in response," Dumars said. "Horace is a good guy and it was just an unfortunate incident. I apologized to him before he came over and left the court."

The Bulls erased a 50-45 halftime deficit and took the lead for the first time since the opening minutes by scoring 11 straight points after Thomas opened the third period with a 15-foot jumper. The Bulls stretched the lead to nine points by the end of the third quarter when Jordan made a 3-pointer from the top of the key as the buzzer sounded. The Pistons never got closer than four the rest of the way.

Detroit, losing for the ninth time in 10 road games, was led by Dumars' 24 points. Thomas added 23.

John Paxson took advantage of Detroit's double- and triple-team defensive schemes against Jordan to contribute 15 points, and Pippen finished with 14. Grant, who lost his starting role to Stacey King for the first time this season, had eight before he was ejected.

The Chicago victory may have proved even more unsettling that at first glance. Thomas, who has been the target of some teammates' grousing recently, did some of his own afterward in an attempt to shake the team from its current lethargy.

"Last year, when we were losing, we were playing hard," he said. "We don't have the same type of attitude to win. We don't have the right, proper frame of mind. Until we get that, we'll be bouncing up and down all season."

Thomas was asked what it might take to get the Pistons going full-bore again. Over the near term, he said it would take nothing more than a glance at the schedule.

But about a return to championship form, Thomas added gloomily, "A different attitude. Or different people."