Michael Jordan was the first to admit he did not have a great game.
When that's happened in the past, the Chicago Bulls usually lost. On Sunday, they beat Detroit 94-83 in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals, with Jordan scoring nearly 10 points less than his playoff scoring average."You have to give my supporting cast a lot of credit," said Jordan, who scored 22 points. But 15 of those came in the first half, and he was scoreless in the third quarter.
"I did not have a particularly good game," Jordan admitted. "The bench came out and held its own."
Scottie Pippen had 18 points, six steals and five blocks and Bill Cartwright scored 16 points. Four reserves - B.J. Armstrong, Cliff Levingston, Craig Hodges and Will Perdue - all scored in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter as the Bulls stretched a 68-65 lead to 81-72.
In knocking Chicago out of the playoffs the previous three years, including the last two Eastern Conference finals en route to winning consecutive NBA titles, the Pistons have neutralized Jordan, and the rest of the Bulls didn't take up the slack.
This time, Armstrong finished with nine points, Levingston eight, Hodges seven and Perdue six. The much-maligned bench players also had 15 rebounds as the Bulls controlled the boards 43-26.
"They had critical play in short minutes," Chicago coach Phil Jackson said. "Detroit is a team that wears you out with their physical presence. We need relief from the bench in this series."
Game 2 of the best-of-7 series also is in Chicago on Tuesday night. Then the scene shifts to the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., for games Saturday and next Monday.
The Bulls took an early 12-point lead, but the Pistons rallied in the third quarter to pull ahead 54-53 and 59-58. They also tied it 62-62 on a 3-pointer by Isiah Thomas before Cartwright and Pippen put the Bulls back ahead to stay.
The Bulls were more rested, having sewed up their series with the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday. Detroit played an overtime game Friday night, ousting Boston from the playoffs.
"We were sluggish, slow afoot and struggled, but we could have stole this one," Detroit coach Chuck Daly said. "The Bulls looked rusty from their long layoff. If you were going to beat the Bulls, today was the day."
But Chicago's reserves were waiting.
"You have to know what is expected," Hodges said. "You have to take your job seriously and not embarrass your team. We had a solid game plan and we had the minutes to get into rhythm."
For Levingston, it was "a great confidence builder. Before this, when it came to crunch time, we'd be out of there. We scored, played good defense, stayed in there and our confidence started to build."
"The difference in this series will be whose bench plays better," Perdue said.
"It was our bench that did it," Jackson said. "They got critical points in short minutes. Detroit wears you down with their physical presence and you need relief minutes."
The Pistons were making no excuses although their backups provided most of the scoring, with Mark Aguirre having 25 points and Vinnie Johnson 21. The only starter in double figures was Isiah Thomas with 11 points, all in the second half.
"The Bulls did everything well," Thomas said. "This was a well-played game. We have to make adjustments before Tuesday. We have to play better in Game 2."
"We don't make excuses," Johnson said. "We're champions back-to-back. It seems the team never got into sync."
Aguirre gave the Bulls credit "for changing their game and adjusting to our style so well. The Bulls played a great game. We know we can win here but it will be tough."