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Isiah Thomas was reeling. You can always tell with him. In the worst of times, Detroit's proud captain chooses to speak in a barely audible whisper, mouthing a few well-chosen cliches and essentially saying nothing at all.

"We just lost a basketball game," Thomas said Saturday as a circle of reporters pressed in close to him, hoping for some small nugget of wisdom. "Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose."

And sometimes you give the game away, which is precisely what the Pistons did Saturday afternoon in a thunderous, sold-out Chicago Stadium. They blew a game they were expected to win, a game they clearly were positioned to win, and nothing Thomas said could obscure the fact this was much more than your ordinary defeat.

All you had to do was look around the Detroit locker room to see that. The Bad Boys were a dreary and subdued lot, stunned as we all are by the gathering legend of Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

But even worse, the Pistons seemed finally aware that the Bulls are a serious and confident team right now, a team that has every right to believe it can upset them and move on to the NBA finals for the first time ever.

Pistons' big lead no surprise

There were a lot of doubts before Saturday. These teams had squared off here a year ago in the playoffs. Chicago was hopeful, having just split two games in Detroit. Then Detroit buried the Bulls in back-to-back games on national TV, holding them to an embarrassing 79 and 77 points in the process.

So when the game approached the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter, with Detroit up by 13, no one seemed especially surprised. It was last year all over. The league's best defensive team reducing the Jordan legend to human terms.

"I told our guys at halftime that I sensed in their faces a little bit of self-doubt against this Detroit team," Chicago head coach Doug Collins said. "I saw us as a little bit unsure, and I just kept trying to pound it into them, 'We can win this game.' "

Last season, they would have folded. But not now, not after the upset wins over Cleveland and the Knicks. This year, the young Bulls seem touched by a certain destiny, and it certainly helps to have a fellow such as Jordan to affirm that belief.

The artist wields his brush

These playoffs have become Jordan's Mona Lisa, and the fourth quarter his canvas. With Chicago down, 90-77, he began wielding his brush. The deficit went to 10, then to seven and to four.

He wasn't doing it alone, either. His young apprentices, Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen, finally awoke from their game-long slumbers. Pippen nailed a big three-pointer. Grant, so ill he had rushed to the dressing room to throw up during the first half, threw up two perfect free throws to tie it, 97-97.

Then came the dubious foul against Bill Laimbeer as he moved to set a pick for Thomas, and there we were. Chicago's ball with nine seconds to play. Another last-second situation that might as well have been scripted by some fanciful television mind.

Jordan took Pippen's inbounds pass and dribbled past the top of the key with Dennis Rodman in pursuit. He glanced at the clock and saw seven seconds. Then he began his move down the right side of the key. Five. Thomas slid over to double-team. Jordan planted his right foot and jumped slightly away from him, hanging for an instant before kissing a 15-foot bank shot off the glass. Ballgame, 99-97.

"You talk about a stolen basketball game, this was a stolen basketball game," Jordan said. "We had faith in ourselves and we just hung in there until the last seven minutes and did all the right things down the stretch.

"It's kind of shocking," Jordan said. "It's
very hard to believe. We so desperately needed contributions from Scottie and Horace but they never really could get there . . . for awhile there, things looked very dim."

As Jordan pointed out, the Bulls really didn't play that well. In the middle two periods, they had only 13 field goals, three of those on goaltending calls. Starters Pippen, Grant and Craig Hodges had 16 points among them on 5-for-22 shooting.

Score pointed to Detroit win

Those are the kind of games Detroit is supposed to win. Jordan will get his points, but make sure you shut down his supporting cast. Entering the game, the Pistons were 44-3 when holding opponents under 100 points. They held the Bulls to 99 and still lost.

That's why this one was so disheartening to Detroit, because it played its own game and somehow came up short. Instead of kicking and elbowing opponents, as is their custom, the Pistons no doubt are kicking themselves.

"I know I would be," Jordan said. "If I was in their shoes, I'd be kicking myself."

Those are bold words, but hey, Jordan has earned the right to say them. He and his Bulls have the upper hand now, and maybe it's time they got the credit due them, to stop regarding them as some unlikely underdog waiting to expire.

Jordan surprising himself

"If people don't want to give us credit, that's fine," Jordan said. "Then let us keep on winning . . . Yeah, we're totally surprising everybody; we have everybody paying attention now. I surprised myself with the way I played my first five years in the league, but that doesn't mean I have to stop. That means I keep surprising myself."

If he has further surprises in store, we can hardly wait for them. After all, at this stage, what could the man possibly do that could strike us with even the faintest surprise?

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