The Jordan Rules: The Truth About Michael Jordan's Intense Rivalry Against Isiah Thomas And The “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons

The Jordan Rules: The Truth About Michael Jordan’s Intense Rivalry Against Isiah Thomas And The “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons

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Michael Jordan is considered the G.O.A.T. by many fans. The biggest reason for this is that His Airness went 6-0 in the NBA Finals.

Jordan did go undefeated in the NBA Finals, but despite what some fans think, Jordan didn’t win the chip every year he played. Jordan played 15 years in the league, winning in six of those years.

So, who defeated Jordan in the years he didn’t win the title? It’s famously known Jordan went up against Larry Bird’s mighty Boston Celtics in the playoffs, but there was one team that stopped Jordan from winning more than any other… The Detroit Pistons.

The ‘Bad Boys’ Detroit Pistons

The Eastern Conference was dominated by the Boston Celtics in the 1980s until the team from Detroit changed their style of play. The Pistons were led by players Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.

Thomas was the guy who was always smiling, looking like the nicest guy on the court. Yet, he’d pull off any dirty trick to beat you once you turned your back.

Thomas was no stranger to dirty plays, but the main culprit of dirty plays was their center, Bill Laimbeer. When looking at Laimbeer, you didn’t see much of an athlete.

Players didn’t believe Laimbeer could stop them, so they went at him. Yet, Laimbeer wouldn’t back down, and he’d pull some tricks to make up for his lack of athleticism.

Laimbeer was known as the “enforcer” for the Pistons. He’d knock you down, hit you, grab you around your neck… Whatever it took to stop a player from scoring, illegal or not, he’d do it.

Also, if a player wanted to attack another Pistons player, Laimbeer would be the first to come to his teammates’ defense.

Michael Jordan once explained to Arsenio Hall on The Arsenio Hall Show about Laimbeer’s dirty play:

(Starts at 8:20):

“If you had 273 professional basketball players here and you say who’s the dirtiest player in the NBA, I say 95% say Laimbeer or Larry Bird,” Jordan said.

After Hall pushed Jordan to explain his answer, Jordan replied that Bird wasn’t dirty; he played smart. Jordan said Bird would grab a player’s shorts to hold them. Then, Bird would spring loose for a layup.

On the topic of Laimbeer, though, Jordan said this:

“Holding, pulling, hard fouls. Laimbeer is very dirty in terms of… you see Laimbeer, he doesn’t jump well. He can’t block a shot. You got myself on the break, and he’s on the break, you know he’s not gonna block my shot. So to see him coming at me with full steam ahead, it’s only to knock me over, knock me off balance. He can’t block my shot. I already said that I got Air Jordan’s on, he’s got Adidas on.”

Jordan poked fun at Laimbeer, but what he said, he believed. Laimbeer wasn’t the only hard hitter on the Pistons, though.

Rick Mahorn was a hard-nosed center/power forward that wouldn’t necessarily play dirty, but if you came in his paint, he’d make you pay.

They had a few other good players like Mark Aguirre, James Edwards, John Salley, and “The Microwave”, Vinnie Johnson. Their most famous player, maybe even more than Thomas, was the hard-hitting colorful Dennis Rodman.

As a Piston, Rodman didn’t color his hair or dress up in a wedding dress, but he would knock you down to the ground. He also would win his only two Defensive Player of the Year Awards with the Pistons in 1990 and 1991.

The Pistons were coached by the legendary Chuck Daly, who had his team playing hard and tough. This play style is what had the media calling Detroit the “Bad Boys” Pistons.

Jordan-Pistons Rivalry Is Born

Michael Jordan was the talk of the NBA during his rookie season. Nobody could believe the Air Jordan got on his dunks, and they couldn’t believe the trick shots he’d routinely make.

There was no surprise that Jordan was named to the All-Star Game as a rookie, and a young Jordan was ready to perform on the highest stage.

The problem for Jordan was that some of the All-Star players, including a teammate, were conspiring to “shut him down” and send a message to the flashy rookie. A few players were reported to be behind this “Freeze-Out”, as it would be later known. But there was one player who was named the mastermind, and that was Isiah Thomas.

Jordan wasn’t looking to ruffle any feathers. He just wanted to fit in with the other players during his first All-Star Game:

“I was very quiet when I went there,” Jordan said about his first All-Star Game experience. “I didn’t want to go there like I was a big-shot rookie, and you must respect me.”

The other players, including Thomas, didn’t see it that way. Jordan showed up to the Slam Dunk Contest wearing a gold necklace and his Nike outfit, and this made him look cocky to Thomas and a few other players.

So, the plan was set to freeze Jordan out. George Gervin and Magic Johnson planned to hound Jordan defensively for the entire game, which wasn’t normal for an All-Star Game.

Thomas’ plan was to make sure Jordan didn’t touch the ball much, and it worked. Jordan only attempted nine shots en route to scoring 7 points.

Jordan wouldn’t say much about the incident publicly, but deep down, it burned at him. This burned so much that Jordan would get revenge the next time the Bulls played the Pistons.

Jordan didn’t have to wait long. The first game after the All-Star Game for the Bulls was against the Pistons, and Jordan got his revenge.

Jordan scored, at the time, a career-high 49 points while grabbing 15 rebounds and collecting 4 steals. The Bulls won 139-126 in overtime, as Jordan showed Thomas and the Pistons he was here to stay.

Jordan routinely had big games against the Pistons over the next few seasons. The Pistons, like every other NBA team, struggled to stop His Airness.

Here’s a list of Jordan’s big games against the Pistons during the 1986-87 and 1987-88 NBA seasons:

– November 7, 1986: Jordan scored 33 points

– January 3, 1987: Jordan scored 47 points

– February 1, 1987: Jordan scored 38 points

– March 4, 1987: Jordan scored 61 points

– April 7, 1987: Jordan scored 39 points

– November 21, 1987: Jordan scored 49 points

– December 15, 1987: Jordan scored 38 points

– January 16, 1988: Jordan scored 36 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and collected 10 assists

– April 3, 1988: Jordan scored 59 points

As you can see, Jordan put up some incredible numbers against the Pistons’ tough defense. The game on April 3, 1988, where Jordan scored 59 points, is what made Pistons’ coach, Chuck Daly, come up with a new game plan against Jordan.

This game plan became a set of unspoken rules. These were dubbed the “Jordan Rules”.

The Pistons’ “Jordan Rules” Stifle Jordan In The Playoffs

The 1988 NBA playoffs were the first time Michael Jordan won a playoff series. Jordan led his Bulls over the Cleveland Cavaliers in an epic 3-2 series victory.

The playoffs were becoming Jordan’s playground, as he continued to perform best on the NBA’s highest stage. Jordan scored an NBA record that still stands, 63 points, against the Boston Celtics in the 1986 playoffs.

In the 1988 playoffs, Jordan scored 50 points in Game 1 against the Cavaliers and 55 in Game 2. Jordan became the first and still the only player to record back-to-back 50-point playoff games.

After defeating the Cavaliers, the Bulls faced the Pistons in the semifinals, and things would go differently for Jordan.

Against the Cavaliers in the first round, Jordan averaged an incredible 45.2 points per game in the series. In the next series against the Pistons, Jordan’s average dropped to 27.4 points per game.

The Pistons swarmed Jordan with all their players. This new set of rules that the Pistons were following appeared to be working.

People have heard of the rules, and when asked, the Pistons players always denied that such rules even existed. So, what exactly were the “Jordan Rules”?

At the time, the Pistons kept quiet about their special rules on guarding Jordan. But in 2007, their former coach, Chuck Daly, opened up to giving out his secrets in an interview with Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

“If Michael was at the point, we forced him left and doubled him,” Daly told McCallum. “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.”

After the documentary on Jordan, The Last Dance, aired back in April 2020, ESPN shared a tweet about the “Jordan Rules”. The tweet shared what former Pistons assistant coach, Brendan Malone, said about their rules on Jordan:

“NO. 1

On the wings, push him to the elbow. Don’t let him drive baseline.

“NO. 2

When he’s on top, influence him to his left.

“NO. 3

When he got the ball in the low post, trap him from the top.


The Pistons clearly came up with the perfect strategy to beat the greatest individual player the game has ever seen. They’d force Jordan to certain spots where their players could surround him.

The Pistons wanted Jordan to pass to his teammates since they didn’t believe any of the other Bulls could beat them. If Jordan didn’t pass the ball, that’s when the Pistons would slam him to the floor.

How long would this defensive strategy work? The Pistons would face the Bulls in the next year’s playoffs, so they’d be tested once again.

Jordan Battles The Pistons To The Limit

By the time the 1989 NBA playoffs came around, the Detroit Pistons had one goal in mind… To win the championship. The previous season, the Pistons made the Finals but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games.

The Bulls, of course, wanted to win a title. At this point, though, their goal was to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bulls would make the Eastern Conference Finals in 1989, and there they’d have their rematch against the Pistons. This time, the Bulls would push the series to six games before ultimately losing the series.

Jordan averaged 29.7 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game in the series. His best performance came in Game 3, where Jordan scored 46 points.

On top of his incredible scoring performance, Jordan hit the game-winning runner over Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas.

Jordan’s great 46-point game in Game 3 doesn’t mean the Pistons’ defense failed against His Airness. In Game 5 of the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals, Jordan was held to 18 points on only eight shots by the Pistons’ defense.

The Pistons would go on to win the championship, their first, by getting revenge on the Lakers by way of a sweep. The Bad Boys were the top team in the league, and it appeared none could stop them, not even Michael Jordan.

The following season, the Bulls would take a bigger step at becoming a championship contender by promoting Phil Jackson to head coach. Jordan was his usual brilliant self, averaging a league-best 33.6 points per game during the season.

This time, Jordan would get more help. Teammates Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant both started to come into their own during the season.

Pippen averaged 16.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.6 steals per game during the season. Grant contributed 13.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.

The Bulls finished with their best record since the 1971-72 season, with a 55-27 record. The Bulls stormed through the first two rounds of the playoffs, setting up yet another matchup against the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Pistons held the home-court advantage, which they held during their first two playoff meetings. This would play an important role in the series, as the home team won every game.

The Bulls and Jordan battled hard in the series. Jordan went off in Chicago for Game 3 and Game 4, scoring 47 and 42 in both games.

Jordan’s play was so great, he made the Pistons’ defense look like they were a high school team. Once the series shifted back to Detroit for Game 5, the Bad Boys returned to their dominant selves.

After two straight 40-point games for Jordan, he was held to 22 points on 7-19 shooting in Game 5. The Bulls would take Game 6 back in Chicago behind Jordan’s 29 points.

Jordan and co. played inspired basketball, forcing the defending champions to the limit, the ultimate pressure game in sports… A Game 7.

Pippen played well in the series’ first six games, averaging 19.0 points per game. If the Bulls wanted to win a Game 7 in Detroit, they needed Pippen to play well.

This didn’t happen. Pippen would score only 2 points on 1-10 shooting in what has become known as the “migraine game”.

Pippen felt great all day long as he was ready to play. Then, when the teams were going through their shootarounds, moments before tip-off, a problem occurred.

Pippen’s head started to hurt, and the lights affected his eyes.

“I thought maybe I’d eaten something and gotten poisoned,” Pippen explained. “I realized it was a big game, but I felt good about it. I ate dinner out the night before and went to a movie, nothing real exciting. I was relaxed and looking forward to the game, but I wasn’t nervous. Breakfast went fine and then came the warmups…

“I started asking my teammates about the lights. I was asking if the lights were dim or something. Then I ran to Mark [Pfeil] and asked him to give me a couple of aspirin. I thought maybe that would calm me down. But that seemed to energize it. It got worse, and when the game started, I couldn’t focus. And 25,000 people screaming didn’t make it any better.”

Jordan did all he could, scoring a game-high 31 points while grabbing 8 rebounds and handing out 9 assists. Once again, the Bulls would be sent home early while the Pistons would go on to win their second straight championship.

The “Jordan Rules” worked again at stopping the NBA’s greatest player. Would Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls ever figure out how to beat the Detroit Pistons?

Jordan Figures Out The “Jordan Rules” And Becomes A Champion

For the past three seasons, the Detroit Pistons beat up on Jordan, physically and mentally.

The Pistons’ strategy was perfect. Since Jordan was the only Bulls player that could hurt the Pistons, it made sense to play this way.

Jordan took so much physical abuse that he adjusted his workouts by adding weight training. His Airness knew he needed to match the Pistons’ physicalness:

“I was getting brutally beaten up,” Jordan said in episode four of The Last Dance documentary. “And I wanted to administer pain. I wanted to start fighting back.”

The Bulls had a record season for their franchise, going 61-21, which was the best record in the Eastern Conference. This gave the Bulls the home-court advantage throughout the entire Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Bulls made quick work of the New York Knicks in the first round and the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, winning 3-0 and 4-1, respectively. This set up another battle against the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bulls felt confident going into the series since they held the home-court advantage. They also believed they gelled together in Phil Jackson’s “Triangle Offense”.

Once the series started, you could tell things were different from the previous three playoff series. In the past, the Bulls players would react to the Pistons’ hard fouls. They’d get fouled hard, get up, and not acknowledge the Pistons’ players.

This was a sign of maturity for the Bulls squad, and even the great Michael Jordan showed signs of maturity. Jordan trusted his teammates more than he ever had at that point in his career, and it made a difference.

The Bulls successfully defended their home court by winning Game 1 and Game 2. Their real test would come in Detroit, a place that was notoriously hard to win at.

The Bulls had no problems in Detroit, either. They defeated “The Bad Boys” 113-107 in Game 3 and 115-94 in Game 4 to sweep the series and clinch their first berth to the NBA Finals.

In the four-game sweep, Jordan averaged 29.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.3 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game. Jordan got the help he’d been looking for in the series.

Pippen averaged 22.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 3.0 steals, and 2.0 blocks per game. Horace Grant added 13.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.

What happened after the Game 4 victory for the Bulls has gone down in history as one of the most talked-about moments in NBA history. This also apparently played a part in Isiah Thomas not being named to the 1992 Dream Team.

The moment I’m talking is the famous “walk-off” by the Pistons.

Only 7.9 seconds remained on the clock, and the Pistons players, led by Isiah Thomas, walked off the court, directly in front of the Bulls bench. This didn’t sit well with the Bulls or NBA fans, in general.

“Typical. We figured the Bad Boys, their whole image. You know, we just felt… well, they didn’t have to shake my hand to know we just whipped they ass,” Jordan said in a 1997 interview with SLAM Magazine. “Oh, it didn’t bother me, because it didn’t surprise us at all, because of the camaraderie and the rivalry that we had against each other. I shook [Detroit’s] hands when they beat us. I hated to do it, but out of sportsmanship, you have to pay your respects. And if someone beats us, I’ll do the same.”

Jordan would go on to lead the Bulls to their first NBA title against Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. The Bulls would go on to win six titles during the 1990s and become one of the greatest dynasties the game of basketball has ever seen.

The Bulls, with Michael Jordan, never played the Pistons in the postseason again. This doesn’t mean the rivalry was over quite yet. Jordan would have one more send-off to give the Pistons before the rivalry truly ended.

The game occurred on November 11, 1992, in Chicago. The Pistons pushed the two-time defending champion Bulls to overtime, behind the hot hand of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.

Jordan would have the final say, which was fitting, as he drilled a game-winning three-pointer as time expired. The G.O.A.T. ran off the court in celebratory fashion as he beat the “Jordan Rules” and essentially ended the Bulls’ rivalry with the Detroit Pistons.


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