It took all of 78 seconds for the first elbow to fly, and not much longer after that for the insults to follow. What seemed surprising was not the timing, but rather that the Bulls had hurled them first.
"We knew all along it was going to be a dogfight," the Pistons Mark Aguirre said. "Maybe that's something they've figured out in the meantime."But we always knew," he repeated, "that it was going to be a dogfight."
Chicago and Detroit are two teams whose dislike of one another, like bullies growing up on the same block, now has advanced beyond the usual unpleasantries.
Whether the fourth renewal of this bitter playoff rivalry will be any different from the previous three remains to be seen. But after Sunday's opener - a 94-83 win by Chicago - this much already is beyond doubt: The Bulls are through backing down.
"We let them know that when they get aggressive," Michael Jordan said, "we can get just as agressive."
In 1988, the Pistons walked all over the Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals and didn't lose their swagger until the Lakers dropped them in seven games. In both 1989 and 1990, during the height of "The Bad Boys" craze, they made the Bulls cower in the conference final and the best of the West did the same soon after in the NBA championship round. The Pistons beat up on everybody during that stretch, but on no one with more delight than the Bulls in general and Scottie Pippen in particular.
Two seasons ago, Chicago stretched out to a 2-1 lead, then absorbed a few hits and just as quickly retreated into the fetal position. They lost the next three, the last one with Pippen watching all but the first minute from the bench, to where he had been dispatched after an untimely collision with Bill Laimbeer's elbow.
Last season, early in the first game, three Pistons sandwiched Jordan on a drive through the lane, dropped him to the floor, bruised his tailbone and chuckled about it afterward. Jordan was so frustrated with the lack of support that by halftime of Game 2 he threw a rare tantrum in the lockerroom, then refused to acknowledge it publicly for three more days.
That series at least went seven games. But it, too, ended with the Bulls folded, spindled and mutilated, and Pippen again watching from the bench, rendered useless after a migraine headache in pre-game warmups.
And so that kind of history accounted for the large chip the Bulls wore on their shoulders when they took the floor Sunday afternoon. During the regular season, Chicago had beaten the Pistons three out of five and ended Detroit's reign in the Central Division. But when center Bill Cartwright sent an early message with his elbows (offensive foul, Chicago), and Jordan made sure it was delivered by barking in Aguirre's face after a brief set-to with Dennis Rodman (offensive foul, Chicago), it became clear that the Bulls still felt they had something to prove.
"We expected them to intimidate us with cheap shots," said Jordan. "So we let them know early we weren't going to take it."
The rough stuff apparently impressed Detroit more than it did the referees. The Pistons didn't back down, but they also didn't get to the free-throw line until 1:13 remained in the opening half. By then, the Bulls had already been handed 19 attempts.
That imbalance so infuriated Laimbeer that a few seconds later, as Jordan prepared to take Chicago's 20th and 21st charity throws of the afternoon, he screamed from the Pistons bench, "You ain't going to get those calls all series, Jordan. You better make them while you can."
Fat lot of good that did him. During a 27-second span less than three minutes into the second half, Laimbeer was whistled for personal fouls Nos. 3 and 4 and banished to the bench again. Not long after that, he took to riding referee Jake O'Donnell so mercilessly that O'Donnell stopped and looked at Laimbeer, yelled "Button it up!" and then slowly drew his hand like a zipper across his lips.
The Pistons had some fight left, finishing the quarter within 68-65, but Chicago's bench beat that out of them soon afterward.
Cliff Levingston, a rugged, journeyman forward the Bulls had acquired last offseason for just such occasions, pounded the Pistons and the boards - in that order - for a pair of easy baskets early in the fourth quarter, and by the time Jordan and Co. returned to the floor, Chicago led 81-72 and was pulling away.
"They definitely came out with the attitude that they were going to be the more aggressive team," Detroit's Vinnie Johnson said. "I don't know if I'd call it intimidation. It was more like a statement. . . . Like, `We're going to be here for 48 minutes, and we can do it this way if we have to."'
Consider the gauntlet dropped.