In the three years leading up to Michael Jordan's first championship with the Chicago Bulls, the same team knocked him out of the playoffs each and every time.
That team? The "Bad Boys" Detroit Pistons.
In 1988, the Pistons put an end to Chicago's season by defeating them in five games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In 1989, the Pistons outlasted the Bulls in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. And in 1990, the Pistons took care of business in seven games, once again in the Eastern Conference Finals.
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Jordan still put up big individual numbers in each of those series, but the Pistons were able to contain him and the Bulls in a way no other team in the league could at the time. To put the success they had against him into perspective, if you look at which players won the most games against Jordan in his career (regular season and playoffs combined), the first seven names on the list are players from those Pistons teams, headlined by Bill Laimbeer and Isiah Thomas.
The way the Pistons did it was by implementing what has become known as "The Jordan Rules," which is a set of principles devised by former Pistons head coach Chuck Daly after Jordan dropped 59 points on the Pistons in the lead-up to the 1988 NBA Playoffs. The general idea was to limit Jordan the best they could by throwing different looks at him and being physical with him, all while daring his teammates to beat them. It began with Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, who served as Detroit's primary defenders on Jordan, and extended to the likes of Laimbeer, John Salley and Rick Mahorn, who were tasked with doubling Jordan and protecting the paint against him.
Remember, this was at a time where hand checking was still legal. Teams could also get away with - shall we say - committing harder fouls than they do now.
"If Michael was at the point, we forced him left and doubled him," Daly explained. "If he was on the left wing, we went immediately to a double team from the top. If he was on the right wing, we went to a slow double team. He could hurt you equally from either wing - hell, he could hurt you from the hot-dog stand - but we just wanted to vary the look. And if he was on the box, we doubled with a big guy.
"The other rule was, any time he went by you, you had to nail him. If he was coming off a screen, nail him. We didn't want to be dirty - I know some people thought we were - but we had to make contact and be very physical."
It wasn't until 1991 that Jordan would finally outlast the Pistons in the playoffs. He ended the team's hopes of a three-peat that season by leading the Bulls to a sweep over the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals with averages of 29.8 points, 7.0 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. He was incredibly efficient, shooting 53.5 percent from the field, 60.0 percent from 3-point range and 83.3 percent from the free throw line.
Jordan received plenty of help in that series, with Scottie Pippen (22.0), Horace Grant (13.5) and Bill Cartwright (10.5) each averaging double figures scoring.
"Until he learned how to involve his other players, he couldn't win, especially against us," Laimbeer said of Jordan. "Once you've started learning that and gave up some control over his ball club to a degree, that's when they started winning. We got old - that was a part of it - but still, you've got to give him credit for recognizing that he couldn't do it himself."
The Bulls went on to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 Finals to win the first championship in franchise history. It marked the first of three straight titles for the Bulls.
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